For the spn_apocasmut challenge. The world is over, and it’s a Winchester’s lot in life to cope with anything – no matter what. The actual prompt is the first quote below, courtesy of innie_darling. Language, angst, humor; all the usual. NC-17 for graphic Sam/Dean. This assumes Sam was not killed at the end of season 2 and that Dean never had to make the deal. Notes follow the tale.
The world begins with the interruption of a sleep. Which is why wakefulness is the only proof of existence. And why the world is fragmented and cannot achieve fullness. And why it constantly seeks to reconstruct fullness. In vain, because the discontinuous will never pass over into the continuous. Mathematics tells us that, last outpost of all that is.
-- Roberto Calasso, Ka
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
-- Carl Sagan
Saturday, September 13th, 2008; 4:29 am EST
The world ends while they’re asleep.
Sam’s first memory of that morning – nothing woke him during the night that he could remember – was a sudden crash of consciousness. He remembered nothing of what had gone on in the darkness prior...and then there was everything.
He’d sat up and turned his head toward Dean, always toward Dean, one commonality in the ever-changing and uncertain life they led. Dean slept on, face down, one arm dangling toward the floor, the skin beneath his eyes bruised with exhaustion. They were in some small but carefully kept roadside motel just outside Calloway, Virginia, one more stepping stone to yet another strange place further on. One more break in the asphalt ribbon that served as their yellow brick road, that ephemeral promise of an end somewhere, somewhen, an idea other than that the road went ever on. Waiting for their real lives to begin, or end so fast that it didn’t matter anymore.
He had known, right away. Dean was alive and breathing, but the world was not, not in the ways he was used to.
He had seen his first real death at five, the first one he could remember, in any case. Sam had been asleep in the back seat and Dean was riding up front when a coyote crossed the road in the dark, and John had mowed it down rather than risk swerving with Sam sprawled out unbuckled in the back. Dean had told him that, later, that it was the way of things and that family came first, something their father would say over and over until a later day when he changed his mind. Sam had not taken it as a token of blame; he’d understood that these things happened, that the coyote had made a choice and then his father had had to make another as a result.
He had watched with wide eyes while it thrashed in the eastbound lane in the sullen glow of the Impala’s brake lights, shrieking, alive and broken and struggling to get the former to overcome the latter.
Dean had not let him see the shot from his father’s gun that stopped the coyote from thrashing around. He heard it all the same, the finality of it, and it didn’t sound anything like it did when Dean was target practicing.
When he’d looked over the back seat and out the window again, the coyote was still. Not the still of sleeping, not the still of waiting; still in a way that Sam grasped even then. You could look at anyone or anything and know immediately whether it was alive or not, without waiting to see if the chest would expand with air again. The vibration of everything that lived was louder in its absence than in its full, unfurled hysteria. It was subtle from a distance, but terribly obvious all the same.
The world, at first glance, was dead.
The parking lot still had cars lined in it, waiting. But none passed on the interstate adjoining it by a short gravel drive. There was a breeze, and trees to carry it along, leaves fluttering and lending some bit of sound to the morning. His watch still kept the time, nothing but a manmade concept trapped against his wrist. When he huffed out a breath while standing in the open door, he heard himself and breathed in clear, cool air. He knew he was fully awake and not in some in-between place. Dew had gathered on the cars and grass, birds chittered and darted in the catalpa tree at the edge of the lot. The sky was a normal color, and no visible storms gathered.
It took him another minute to realize that part of his unease was the silence above. No air traffic. They were close enough to Roanoke to the west and Greensboro to the south that there should have been a plane by then, regardless of which way the breeze was blowing the engine noise.
His hands on his own face were real, something solid and rough and connected with the world. The salt line at the door had not been broken.
Dean was warm and real and breathing, and the fact that he didn’t stir when Sam ran the backs of his fingers along one of his shoulderblades was nothing new.
The bathroom light came on when he flipped the switch. The water gushed out of the taps.
The television came on, but showed nothing on the local channels. Snow crossed the screen until he reached the first cable channel, an old movie, and he felt his shoulders slump in relief until he realized...most stations ran on presets. They were set to go for days without a single button pushed.
There was a dial tone, but no operator ever answered when he pushed zero; the ringing went on interminably and he hung up when he’d had all he could take. His cell had a signal, but Bobby never answered. Missouri never answered. Ellen never answered. Jo never answered.
No one ever answered.
That was enough to wake Dean for, finally.
Dean’s first response to the shaking was to ask where his coffee was. Then the look on Sam’s face made him sit up and glance around before tilting his head at Sam.
“Something’s happened.” It was the only thing Sam could think of to say.
Dean had gone through the same motions, not because maybe Sam wasn’t thorough enough but because Dean was hands-on, first person, last chance. The phones, the sky, the water, the TV, it was all enough, and Dean shimmied into his jeans that were still on the floor and took off out the door, looking for the office. Sam followed along in boxers, because there was no one to see him anymore but Dean.
The bell on the office door was too bright and normal for the kind of day they were already having. There was no one in there. No phone ringing, no sounds of someone in the back getting ready for the day. The silence was suffocating and rang much louder than the bell.
Dean began kicking in doors after that, shouting fire and trying to get a response.
Winchesters always began with the obvious, but usually from different angles. Dean said it could just be this area.
Sam kept his thoughts to himself: maximum room capacity plus staff comes out to roughly fifty people missing.
He watched with a peculiar mix of gathering despair and awe when Dean stood in the middle of the parking lot with bare feet and chest and flung his head back, arms out. He was listening to the world, with everything he was, waiting for the simplest thing. It only lasted maybe a minute, tops, but Sam lived there for awhile and didn’t mind.
No cars passed. No planes rumbled above.
The Impala’s radio, when they tried it, was a low and steady buzz except for a couple of top 40 stations that were probably running on presets, like the cable channels were.
Dean kept dialing Bobby’s number because he couldn’t stop hoping. It wasn’t in him to.
They dressed and packed, silent with each other, lost in thought and dread, not ready to postulate. Sam added the local population to his running tally, and possibly Bobby’s part of South Dakota, but wasn’t ready to add the figures for the areas the cable channels were coming from. Not until he could line them all up. Knowing the scope was nothing but information, and information was something you gathered without knowing why, because you never knew when it would come in handy.
There was no one in town.
Stores, restaurants, homes. There were lights, inside and out; traffic lights changed intermittently to keep nonexistent traffic flowing, TVs flickered sporadically, screens flipping with snow or a grayed out and rolling pop. Canned musak went on in an insensible loop.
Sam saw the first instant of fear in his brother, after that. Dean was always eyes first unless he was playing poker. Even when he was conning, there were any number of emotions in his eyes, whether he felt them or not. Even his grin was second only to his eyes. His brother’s eyes were wide and severe and looking, always looking for a sign of life or an ignition point for the end of it.
Getting out of the car and walking around downtown Roanoke didn’t give them any answers.
They passed supermarkets and restaurants, gas stations, Starbucks stores, a McDonald’s. There was no one inside. Lights on, deep fryers and cash registers running and ready to go, but no one manning them and no sign that they’d been taken in any way that had been a surprise to them. Nothing dropped or shoved over, no cash registers left open to give change, no blood-spatters, no pleas for help scratched into any surface. Things were put away. If it was already in use, it was running, but there was no scattering of money or half-eaten food, no gas nozzles trailing along the pavement, no cars running. Things were too orderly.
There were no portents or omens, no waving flags, no Nostradamus-style announcements. No I told you so’s. There was no destruction or chaos, nothing left abandoned mid-panic; the evidence for any world-ending event was shocking in that it just didn’t exist. There were no dust clouds or boiling seas. The human experience in every culture allowed for the end of everything as a battle, or a catastrophe wrought by a higher being come to punish its wayward children and exact some sort of instantaneous justice. It did not allow, in any circumstance, for an utter and complete stillness. Humankind goes kicking and screaming to its doom. It does not get up from breakfast one morning and wander away, leaving the lights and the TV on.
That ruled out the demon virus they’d seen run through that town in Oregon. That had not been orderly. Everyone had vanished afterwards, but from a small town. Not from whole cities.
It was silent but for the birds. The white noise of human existence had drifted to nothing, not even leaving a final hollow ringing sound of its once-clamor.
Sam was so intent on listening for more that he startled when Dean spoke.
“You feel okay, right? Nothing...I mean, you don’t feel weird or anything.”
Sam took a steadying breath. “You mean a vision, or something? No. I didn’t have any nightmares last night. I don’t even remember dreaming. That doesn’t mean anything, though. I mean...maybe if demons were involved. But even then, it was kind of hit and miss, wasn’t it? If I’d thought the world was gonna end today, Dean, I’d have at least told you.”
“And we’re awake,” Dean said.
Sam grabbed Dean’s wrist and held on for a long moment. Neither of them broke stride. “Feels like we are,” Sam said softly.
They didn’t separate, but Dean wandered along the front of a still-closed bank for several long minutes, looking in the windows.
“It’s not like, you know, the Langoliers,” Dean said, yards away and not raising his voice but still so audible. “It’s not The Neverending Story where the Nothing is swallowing everything away. It’s not a progression, it’s just...everything’s the same. Without the people.”
Then he walked back to the Impala, popped the trunk, and got out a crowbar and one of his shotguns. Sam didn’t comment or offer to help. He knew what was coming and didn’t think it mattered.
Dean blew out the bank’s first three plate glass windows with the shotgun. The alarm wailed, loud and sure, and they knew somewhere a series of silent alarms went off as well, alerting cops for miles around. After three minutes had passed with no response, Dean wandered across the street
(jaywalking, except it wasn’t anymore, was it, now that all the roads were his, all his)
and using the crowbar to take out the windows and glass doors of several businesses in the little strip mall across the way. Three of the four shops he hit – the shoe place, the teriyaki place, the Hallmark – had alarms, too. Maybe the bank alarm just hadn’t been working right, so Dean and his need for empirical evidence tested the hypothesis with a little wholesale destruction.
The alarms would burn themselves out before anyone came. The fucking sun would burn itself out before anyone came.
They sat in the car for a little while, watching nothing pass. The light changed as the planet kept turning, but the hamster of humanity was gone from its wheel.
Dean dialed Bobby again only to hear the standard twenty eight rings before the recorded operator came on to tell him he was being disconnected. “I slept through the fuckin’ Rapture,” he said with a note of open complaint in his voice. “This is bullshit, I wanted to see, like, cars crashing all over and swings swinging by themselves and stuff. This is just...it’s boring.”
Sam didn’t respond. Dean was going to be brave for a good long time with nervous jokes and whistling in the dark, and Sam could handle that just fine.
“Okay,” Dean said, flipping his phone shut. “Let’s pretend this is it. We have to plan, we can‘t sit around and wait for something to happen. The gas pumps will keep working as long as the power stays on. That’ll be...a day or two, three at most. The power plants will shut down if no one is keeping them running. That’ll be our next big sign. After that...we break into the tanks under the stations. So let’s stock up on gas and supplies while it’s easier to do it, start looking for survivors and see if anybody knows anything.”
“There has to be something to survive,” Sam said. “To leave survivors behind....something has to happen. There are birds and squirrels and bugs, Dean. But no people.”
Dean swallowed visibly, but held his unimpressed expression. “So what do you think this is?”
Sam shook his head. “I’m trying to wrap my head around this, okay? It’s like we were in some kind of...safe zone, or we got passed over. Or maybe this isn’t our world at all.”
“Unpopulated alternate dimension?” Dean said. There was no sneer in it, though. “With every sign that there were people, but they’ve just stepped off the edge?”
Sam wanted more than anything to think they were in a hollow echo of the world, left there accidentally, spelled there by unknown forces, dropped there by chance. Because that meant the real world went on somewhere, safe and common.
They pumped three different stations empty of both unleaded and diesel and began stockpiling it. They gathered all the additives and stabilizers they could find to make sure it lasted as long as it could. They chose several separate buildings away from roads, with cool, dry, dark central rooms, using every capable and sealable container from a couple of hardware stores and gas stations that they could find. Sam kept track of their hoards on a map. They filled the car’s tank and put two full gas cans in the trunk. They stocked up on ammo like they never had before.
They went into automatic survival mode. It was second nature. Winchesters were built for world-endings.
Or even just the pauses; the world was all still there, just not the one they had always known. It went on living, quietly and inexorably shifting back toward the way it had been before five-toed primate footprints had begun marking its face.
“So I guess we’re not on the FBI’s most wanted anymore,” Dean said, sleeves rolled up, checking for parts for the Impala at yet another gas station. They would need them, if this was all that was left. If the end went on for a good long time. “Nobody looking for us.”
“I wish they were,” Sam said.
Dean paused to look at him.
“We can’t be sure the whole world’s empty,” Sam said, eyes down. “We just can’t. Maybe this is still a local thing. We’ve gotta give it time.”
Dean’s eyes might have held sympathy or pity, but he was careful not to let Sam see it.
The only way to handle the whole thing was to approach it as if it was another job, one more thing to conquer. They didn’t have all the info yet, but he knew deep down it was all over. He just hadn’t hit the wall yet. He couldn’t. If he thought about it, if he really let it sink in and land instead of just living alongside like he’d always done, he might fall down and never get up, not even for Sam. Because a world with all the people missing meant they had saved so many for nothing. Nothing. All gone. So much sacrifice and blood and pain and love, for nothing, for no one. No legacy, no victory over evil, no chance to keep it all going and beat back the dark. All their decisions, all the decisions ever made, taken away.
Sam was enough. Sam had always been enough. He could happily count Sam as the world and go on.
They decided to head for South Dakota first, to look for Bobby. That was a decent goal. They would check for people along the way, and maybe Bobby didn’t even realize the world had vanished yet, since he lived out in the middle of nowhere anyway. They loaded the car carefully with the basics in case they found a different situation as they moved west. Maybe people weren’t so much missing as flocking somewhere else in search of brains. Maybe something else had taken over and hadn’t made itself plain yet. Maybe everything was gone in other places, rather than just the people. They could imagine a lot.
Dean went into the bank one last time before they left town, looking at the vault longingly. The alarms had finally burned themselves out.
Sam stood in the shattered doorway, arms folded, carefully blank, holding it all together while he waited to see more of the world. “There’s no point, Dean.”
Dean shrugged. “Hey, you never know. There’s probably gold in there, and if there’s anybody left, paper money won’t be worth anything anymore. The hard stuff will be coin of the realm. Or bartering. Chickens and goats. I’m not carting a bunch of fuckin’ chickens around, that’s for sure.”
Sam just shook his head, making some kind of response to keep himself from panicking, to keep himself in the now.
Dean settled for clearing out a few of the teller’s drawers to amuse himself. “I’ve already been accused of trying to rob a bank,” he said. “May as well do it.”
They sat in the car and took a last look around, looking for something besides birds that might move, react, give a damn.
They only used the freeways and interstates between cities and towns. At first, Dean took every second exit or used the backroads to check every single habitable area. Farms, small towns, rest areas while heading northwest; Christiansburg, Blacksburg, Beckley. Cabin Creek, Marmet. Right into Charleston, the first decently sized city between them and Bobby’s.
Sam’s tally of the missing had risen to roughly two million. The state of West Virginia.
The first thing they noticed – except for the lack of people – was the cars. There were none blocking any road. None were crashed into each other or veered to any side, none abandoned at the side or on an overpass. None in the ditches. They were in parking lots and driveways, parked at curbs. None were running or had their hazards on or their doors left open. There was no sign of mayhem or shock. Everything was left behind, but not in a panic. If it was already parked, it had stayed parked.
Where the hell had the cars-in-transit gone?
They drove through major shopping areas and strip malls, then outlying neighborhoods. It was going to be dark soon, but they had to check, had to know. They split up on one street and tried doors. Some were open. The ones that weren’t were kicked in.
TVs were on but received nothing unless they were on a cable channel. Lights were on, coffeepots were heating the last dregs of coffee that was burning away to leave a residue. Dogs and cats and birds greeted them, sometimes happily but often not. Fish tanks bubbled away. There wasn’t one sign that anyone had jumped up to run from a table or bathroom, to escape. There was nothing that had been left right in the middle. No cigarettes burning, no forks thrown down in the middle of breakfast, no water left running. Nothing burning on stoves.
They met back up in the middle of the street, a block away from the car, and stared at each other.
“It’s like they all took a trip,” Dean said. “And they left all their stuff behind.”
“Except us,” Sam said.
“We weren’t invited,” Dean said.
Sam folded his arms and looked around. He’d started leaving doors open as he went because the dogs and cats were going to be better off having a chance to run in and out rather than being trapped inside to starve. Of the pets in backyards, only two dogs had let him get close enough to let them loose. He didn’t mention it to Dean. He didn’t have to. Dean had been doing the same.
“We just have to keep going,” Dean said. “Just...keep going. That’s what we do. What we’ve always done.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Sam said suddenly, looking at one of the houses he’d recently been in. “If I’d woken up and there wasn’t...if you were...”
“Hey,” Dean said. “Kind of always been that way, right? You and me. It’s okay as long as we’re...you and me.”
Sam nodded. Nothing was actually okay, but Dean was there like always, and that was enough.
They went back into Charleston and began stockpiling gas like they had before, so that it was easily accessible at a later time. They had decided to do that every chance they got. Even needing to break into the tanks later wasn’t a solid guarantee; the fuel would begin to evaporate sooner or later. Or break down. None of those tanks was as airtight or leakproof as anybody said. They needed to be able to get around, somehow.
While Dean was filling containers, Sam went into a pharmacy just across the street and perused the medical supplies. He chose several broad-spectrum antibiotics, burn remedies, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, first aid supplies. They just simply didn’t know what they were up against. They had to take all precautions. Maybe they would run into straggling survivors who needed help; maybe they would run into something that would cause them to need patching up. The end of things the way he knew them didn’t mean he stopped trying to do what he could for the people that weren’t as prepared.
He was careful to keep Dean in sight though the front plate glass windows as he walked aisle to aisle.
He checked around and found a good set of walkie-talkies with a five mile range, and an emergency crank-powered radio that came with a light. It would be good to keep around, since it didn’t need batteries and could charge other things. Their cell phones, at least, while they worked.
When he returned, Dean was trying to call Bobby again. Dialing zero, dialing 911. Nothing.
Dean filled the Impala’s tank, checked the oil, checked the tire pressure. He grabbed a case of beer from the station’s store along with a case of bottled water, then got ice and pop from the fountain for them both, because the point was unspoken but well heard all the same: Dean was really going to miss ice machines, and pop once it all went flat. There was no one to make more.
Their lives were suddenly going to be full of more last times than they ever had before.
It wasn’t a matter of being pessimistic or giving up. It was just a way of taking in the available evidence and responding appropriately. It was what they knew how to do.
They leaned against the car and sipped, each grateful for the small semblance of normalcy.
“We gotta bed down for the night,” Dean said. “Gotta pick a place that we can easily defend, if we have to. Just ‘cause we haven’t seen anything doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.”
Sam let that ride for a moment, glancing around the empty street, checking the three cars in the gas station’s parking lot once again. “Since the animals are still around, since it’s not all life that’s missing, then maybe it’s just human life that’s gone. What about...Wendigos, werewolves, vampires? Vampires aren’t alive, I guess, but they’re....animate. What about demons, Dean? No way they gave up this easily.”
Dean shrugged, the motion looking more casual than it was. “After planning to come take over the world for so long? Hell, for all we know...it’s demons that did this.”
Sam sighed quietly in anxiety. Would the demons come and find the world hollow, to have everything and yet nothing, with the human herd gone to unknown pastures?
“For all we know,” Sam said softly, “this is Hell. This is what we can’t stand.”
“No,” Dean said quickly. “Mariah Carey would be playing on eternal repeat on some sort of unseen Muzak system if this was Hell. I can’t say anything will ever be all right, but this isn’t the worst, Sammy. We’re still here and...”
He didn’t say it. He’d been about to echo Sam’s earlier sentiment, about being together. He didn’t need to. Sam knew.
“Hell wouldn’t let me keep you, Sam,” Dean said. “Hell for you might be getting stuck with me. But my Hell doesn’t have you in it.”
Sam felt his face begin to crumple and looked away, fighting it all down.
“We’re kind of overwhelmed,” Dean said, softer. “A lot less than anybody else would be, okay, but this is pretty heavy shit. And we haven’t seen everything yet, and there’s not much we really know. So we can just keep looking. First we gotta eat and sleep, or that won’t be possible. We can sleep in shifts to keep an eye out.”
“At least we don’t have to stay in a motel, right?” Sam said, face still turned away, voice a little shaky.
Dean stared at him. Comprehension dawned on his face. “Oh, wow,” he said. “Sam, you genius.”
Sam looked straight ahead but didn’t want to look right at Dean and let Dean see the residual pain on his face. “What.”
“Dude, five-star hotel,” Dean said. “Come on. Oh, man. This is...okay, aside from everybody missing, that’s pretty cool. Penthouse suite.”
Sam found himself snorting. “Jesus. You can find the bright spot in anything, can’t you? Fuckin’ hedonist.”
“Hey, guilty as charged,” Dean said. “We have to deal with what we have until we know more. You know, not give up hope, just sort of put it on the back burner while we gather intel.”
Sam felt a confused mixture of grief and laughter bubble up in his chest and gave voice to neither. “We can do this, huh? Whatever it is.”
“Yeah,” Dean said. “So let’s go.”
“You do realize there won’t be any room service,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Dean said, “that’s nothing. It’s occurred to me that there might be no chicks left. That sucks.”
They stood in the lobby of the Marriott in Charleston.
This had never come up before, not while they were working. They didn’t stay in places with more than two floors, ever. Bottom floor meant something might get in, but they could deal with that. Upper floors meant risking being trapped, by a fire, or a crowd of whatever might be left.
“Corner room is a defensible position,” Dean said. “Easy to get out, stairs are always right there. Bottom floor means barricading the windows, and I want to leave the windows open in case there’s something to hear. So let’s go up, but not up high enough to cause us a problem if we need to get out fast.”
Sam nodded. “No elevators,” he said. “Stairs only. We get trapped in an elevator now, we’re really screwed.”
“Yeah, ‘cause I’m not climbing the goddamn cables to get out,” Dean said. “Sad way to die, in an elevator. Survive the fuckin’ apocalypse and then die in an elevator.”
They made a quick search of the main areas and hallways of the hotel, then took a bunch of cardkeys and wandered around on the third floor and found a corner room they liked that was ridiculously fancy. Three rooms, huge bathroom, fireplace, sitting area. Hot tub. Full bar. Fridge with snacks not commonly found in a convenience store. If the power went out, they couldn’t use the cardkeys anymore, but they’d be able to break the door if they had to. And they had a fireplace. Dean wasn’t sure he wanted to be the only visible smoke for miles, but, sooner or later something would catch fire without people to keep watch and it wouldn’t matter anymore.
They emptied the car and brought everything into the room. No way they were risking losing anything, even if there were plenty of other places nearby with supplies. Dean parked the Impala close to the stairwell their room was on, next to six other cars left behind by patrons who no longer needed them. He locked it up and looked around carefully before going in the side door and barricading it with a couple of chairs and a bunch of empty cans from the kitchen.
Sam was surfing the internet, looking for any sign of life when Dean came back in. He was checking CNN.com, randomly IM’ing total strangers, posting on forums, and checking blogs, looking for the date and time of the very last post.
They were all the same. September 13th, 2008. The oldest post he could find was 1:29am PST; 8:29am Greenwich mean time.
“It’s like...it’s the stopping point,” Sam said. “Moment zero. Nobody’s posting stuff like ‘oh my God, they’re here,’ or ‘help, is anyone out there’. It’s just....everything was business as usual, and then everybody was gone.” He paused. “I was saving it, you know? I expected to open the laptop and find somebody, some kind of gathering of whoever was left, some kind of...answer.”
“You gonna post something?” Dean said.
“I have. Like, everywhere. All the major news sites, as many of the stupid celeb entertainment sites as I can....I can’t think of anything else.”
‘Then leave it alone for now and see if anything pops up in the morning,” Dean said, ruffling his hair.
Sam nodded and clicked the laptop shut. He didn’t want to think about what no life on something as huge as the internet meant. Not everyone on the planet had access to the internet. And no posting only meant no power, no access to computers. The hotel still had wireless running, and the chances of their locale being the only place that did....was small. So small.
He didn’t want to be the last person who ever posted on the internet. He didn’t want the internet to stand as it was, the last thing that humanity had made that would stand pristine in the face of extinction; the only thing that would survive even long after the power went out, locked away in pixels forever.
He did not revise his running tally. Not yet. The evidence was too shaky. He had to relegate it to places he’d been, places he’d seen for himself.
Dean went downstairs with one of the walkie-talkies and checked the kitchen. “Dude, there’s tons of food down here, and some of it’s pre-made. What do you want?”
“I’m not that hungry,” Sam said.
“You’re gonna eat, and I’ll shove it down you if I have to,” Dean said. “Don’t piss me off.”
“I want a salad,” Sam said.
“Jesus Christ,” Dean said, and his annoyance was plain over the air. “You can have anything, and you choose that.”
“I’m gonna miss lettuce,” Sam said. “It doesn’t keep, and we’ll have to grow our own.”
There was a long silence on Dean’s end.
“Dean? You okay?”
“Only you would miss lettuce,” Dean said. “I’m gonna throw something together and bring it up. Stay there.”
“Leave your end open, then,” Sam said.
Dean did. Sam got to listen to him sing while he cooked. He could hear something frying, then a clatter and some pretty inventive swearing, then more singing. Dean broke off to mutter something about ‘these bitches better have ranch around here somewhere’ and then a falsetto rendition of Sabbath’s Iron Man.
Nothing - not even the end of the world - could keep Sam from snickering over that.
He kept looking for anything posted or anything on the news sites just before what he’d come to think of as Moment Zero. Anything indicating something odd, disappearances, disturbances. Strange weather patterns. Black holes. Strange lights in the sky. Anything that could point him to what might have happened to the world he’d known. It didn’t matter how crazy it sounded; he’d happily try anything as an explanation.
He came up empty. If anyone had known their time was up, they hadn’t said so online. Maybe something had happened to completely screw up the ability of the ‘net to accept anything. Had screwed up all transmissions, of everything. Kind of like the whole plot of that show that had had Jessica Alba in it. Dark Angel.
He thought of Exodus; the ten plagues. The angel of death moving through Egypt, killing the firstborn, makat bechorot, but passing over the homes with lamb’s blood on the doorposts.
Why were they still there? What had been their lamb’s blood?
The rest of the world’s people had practiced some kind of exodus of their own.
Dean had moved on to AC/DC. His impression of Bon Scott was lacking. Sam didn’t care; it was enough just to hear his voice.
“Dude, I need help bringing this crap up.”
Sam went down the stairs to help Dean with dinner. He found Dean in the kitchen wearing an apron, and a strip of cloth around his forehead like he thought he was an Iron Chef.
“Filet Mignon?” Sam said.
“I cooked it rare enough so that a good vet could revive it, so c’mon, let’s eat.” Dean shoved a bowl of salad greens into Sam’s hands and headed for the stairs with a tray.
They salted the door and the windows, just in case.
They watched movies on cable and drank beer and tried not to think about how, sooner or later, neither thing would exist anymore.
As exhausted as they were, they only managed a few hours of sleep between them. The last time they’d slept, the world had ended.
September 14, 2008
Huntington. A detour up into Ashland, then on into Kentucky. Grayson, Olive Hill, Morehead. It was in Morehead that Dean quit paying attention to stop signs and traffic lights. They just didn’t matter anymore. It was harder at first than he’d thought, because the rules were so ingrained. The center line had never meant that much anyway, since on the long stretches without traffic, Dean had always straddled it. But the lights...purposely running red lights came with flinching amusement and an involuntary glance in the rearview. Then they just kept driving, passing places by until they hit Winchester. Sam marked several major road signs with spray paint he’d picked up from one of the hardware stores: we’re here, 9/14/08. He scribbled and left notes on the doors of businesses, described what they’d seen. Left their phone numbers. They left a stockpile of gasoline in Lexington and then pushed on.
Sam’s tally of the missing rose to six million: West Virginia and Kentucky.
Louisville - more markers, another stockpile. St. Louis. They stopped there for the night, to stockpile gas and hide medical supplies in case someone or something came along and demolished the place. Another hotel, another corner room on the third floor, another decent meal.
September 15th, 2008
Day three. Kansas City, then Omaha, Nebraska. While they were stashing stuff and restocking in Omaha, the power went off.
It wasn’t immediately noticeable in the daylight, but once the traffic lights were gone and the automatic neon signs went dark, it became apparent that the power had finally failed...at least in that area. The coal-fired stations had run out of fuel, and the electricity bled off, flickering away.
“Generators,” Dean said. “If we wanna settle somewhere...we can use generators, while the gas lasts. Batteries...Jesus, we have a world full of batteries.”
It was the first time either of them had mentioned the possibility of settling down. It seemed early yet to give up and say there was no one left to look for, no reason to keep moving and searching. No signs of evil. Had evil been to blame for any of it, then there would have been something left behind. Evil liked to take the credit for its handiwork most of the time. And ending the world? That was a lot of handiwork.
Their whole lives had been about being prepared. Preparing for the unexpected; preparing for eventualities. The leap ahead to discussing the future was nothing more than a natural progression. They had always adapted to their surroundings. This was one more adaptation, and if there was nothing left for them to chase, there was no reason to wander from place to place endlessly. They would search while they could. When they were satisfied that they were alone - if it ever came to that - then there was a decision to be made about how they spent the rest of their lives.
“We’re surrounded by supplies,” Sam said. “One place runs out, we just...move on.”
Dean grunted. “Ain’t staying up this far north in the winter,” he said. “Mexico. Beaches in Mexico. And tequila keeps, like, forever.”
Sam smirked. It was pale and halfhearted, but it was there.
When it started to get dark, the differences hit even harder. No streetlights, no store lights, no headlights. The dark was total and ominous for miles. The boys had been in only two windstorms in their lives that had been bad enough to kill the power; once for two days. It had been a rare occurrence, because as soon as it was safe to move on, they had. John Winchester had known better than to hang around where the only light could be had by flame. They had always driven until they found a place where the power was still on. It had been something amazing to them, a world without artificial light, larger and looming and mysterious. It hadn’t felt threatening; their young eyes had adapted quickly, and they were always armed. The dark wasn’t anything to fear. It just needed watching.
They finally found emergency lights on a fire station they passed. Automatic generators and backup power were still running in the places that needed it most.
They found a hotel in the dark among buildings that were suddenly forbidding. They chose another corner room, kicking the door in because the lock was electronic. There was still a chain and deadbolt on the inside of every door, so it didn’t matter. They checked a few other rooms and the kitchen by flashlight. Sam cooked half-thawed lobster and shrimp on a natural gas stove that he lit with Dean’s lighter. There was still enough pressure in the lines.
They ate by candlelight out in the dining area, choosing an inside wall away from the windows.
“Lobster by candlelight,” Dean said. “Wow. Just because I’m the last person on earth doesn’t mean I’m gonna put out, Sam.”
Sam dug a chunk of meat out of a claw. “Shut up,” he said. “There’s still...shit, never mind.”
“You were gonna say ‘there’s still sheep’ or something, right?” Dean said. “I knew that about you.”
Sam didn’t retort. Dean watched him, trying not to be caught doing it. Sam was all business when it was needed, but he was taking it all just as hard as Dean had feared. Dean only felt the loss of parts of the world. He could only deal with so much. His world had purposely never been as wide as Sam’s, because he wanted to specialize in certain things, and the bigger picture had not always been something that would help him do that. But Sam would feel the loss of the whole, sooner or later.
Dean wanted to catch him before he fell.
They took showers with what could very well have been the last hot water that manmade electricity would ever provide. Dean swore he was going to find a place with a generator. He was not going to live without hot showers.
They headed north to Sioux City first thing in the morning. It was a serene, partly cloudy fall day that should have been rife with school buses and people rushing to work, sirens and laughter, talk radio, exhaust and fast food. It was a ghost town.
If they didn’t rush then it would be longer before they found Bobby’s house empty.
“The lights,” Dean said. “On the fire departments. I’ll bet they’ll work on all the 911 centers, all the police stations. Jails. Hospitals.”
Sam squinted at him, trying to follow his thought pattern. “Yeah?”
“We need to check the hospitals. People go to there or to schools when something...happens.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, okay. ‘Cause if the people are gone even from the morgue, then we know...well, more than we know now.”
Mercy Medical Center off 5th didn’t have any more cars than the rest of the area seemed to. There was no sign of movement aside from pigeons. They watched from a slight distance before parking closer and walking right in the emergency room entrance with hands on guns.
The waiting room area, admitting, the labs. The emergency generators let them come and go through electronically operated security doors.
No one in any of the rooms, on any of the floors.
The morgue in the basement had no one in the drawers.
Sam recognized the look on Dean’s face immediately.
“Cemetery,” Dean said. “Let’s go.”
“Dean – “
“Sam, people were here. They lived here. They made all this stuff, and maybe they got taken or vaporized or who knows what. But it’s not like they never existed. There’s gotta be someone here, somewhere. There has to.”
Sam stared at him for a long moment, but already knew he had no reason to try and deter him from digging someone up. It would just be more evidence, in the end. It likely wouldn’t help them find out what had happened.
Sam was afraid that the coffins would be empty, and it would prove Dean wrong. People had never been there. The world was a construct of their imagining, one big hollow echo still holding the constructs but not the creators. A Djinn had them in its grasp, and instead of what they wanted, they were getting what they feared.
All for nothing.
Calvary Cemetery was the largest cemetery in the area, just off a golf course. They drove through the gates and followed the main drive. It was sloping and well kept, open, green. Sam knew without asking that Dean was looking for the newest burials so that the digging would go quicker. It was a requirement in most places in the last couple of decades to place a coffin inside a cement liner prior to burial, to keep the earth above from sinking once the coffin below collapsed. It wasn’t done everywhere, though, especially the older cemeteries; and even if there was a liner, they’d be able to pry it apart.
“Mausoleums,” Sam said softly.
Dean’s hands were white-knuckled on the wheel. “What?”
“Find a mausoleum and break into it first,” Sam said. “It’s not like we’ll be disturbing anybody. It’s the easiest thing to try, before we start digging.”
He wanted the disappointment to be over sooner rather than later.
Dean glanced around. “The people in the morgue were dead, but they were still above ground,” he said. “Everybody above ground is gone. I wanna see if anybody’s still under it.”
Sam nodded. It was useless to remind Dean that they’d been above ground, too, and they were still there.
The drive wound around through several older sections, a military monument, a caretaker’s shed. Near the far northwest corner was a recent burial, the headstone already set in place but the earth still piled, the covering sod loose and humped.
They retrieved shovels from the trunk wordlessly. Sam rolled up his sleeves and gently rolled up the sod, dropping it several feet away. Nobody would be coming to visit the grave again, and there would be no one to care whether anyone had disinterred their loved one. No one was going to care whether the sod ever looked good again, but it was still wrong to completely disrespect what was left.
Sam decided it was too bad there was no one left to read the Winchester Guide To Respectful Grave Desecration.
He ran the back of one wrist across his mouth to both still and disguise the urge to laugh.
It took both of them to roll the headstone back. They didn’t want it falling into the hole, or on them, and they were both careful not to read the name inscribed on the two-toned granite.
They worked in silence. The day stayed cool and got breezier as it went on, thin clouds skating by above as they partially buried themselves in an effort to unearth someone else. At roughly three feet they hit the cement liner.
Dean hauled himself up out of the hole and headed back for the car, taking an automatic glance around. He figured he’d never stop doing it, not after a lifetime of it. After awhile, maybe it wasn’t people he’d need to keep an eye out for; maybe once the bigger predators started taking even the most built up places back, he’d need to make sure he and Sam weren’t the most attractive two-legged tasty things around.
Sam was staring at him from the open hole, head and shoulders above the edge.
He got a crowbar and a sledgehammer out of the still-open trunk and held them both out for Sam so he could jump back in.
“Top only,” he said. “No point digging the whole thing up, just gonna break in above the head. Like the resurrectionists used to do.”
Sam nodded. Like the anatomists back in the early to mid eighteen hundreds had done in an attempt to get bodies to examine. It had become a popular way of making money in those times, in Edinburgh and London, to bring fresh corpses to medical schools. It was quickest and easiest just to dig at the top only, break the coffin open, and drag the corpse up and out by its head. Students often dug up their own family members just so they could learn. Sadly, it had become a trade that was lucrative enough to entice some to ‘make’ their own fresh corpses.
Sam laid into the liner with the sledgehammer, and it took half a dozen blows to get it to crack apart enough to get the crowbar in and take enough of it out to allow them to look in at the top of the coffin. It was a dark hardwood with brass fittings. They looked at each other for a moment. Then Dean took the sledgehammer to the top of the coffin, first only denting but then shattering the treated wood. He dug more out with the crowbar, watching for splinters. When the silk lining became visible, he tossed the crowbar aside and got his knife out, slitting the cloth lengthwise.
Sam held a flashlight down into the resulting opening.
There was a pale female face below, only days dead, false color applied to the bloodless skin in the form of makeup, dark hair still carefully in place.
Dean’s shoulders slumped in relief that even he knew was macabre.
It meant people had been there, had really inhabited the same space they were currently in. They hadn’t been shoved into some alternate reality.
But it also meant people were really gone.
“Okay,” Sam said. “So anyone underground was left in place. Then maybe anyone underground for any other reason might still be out there. Not just below ground in buildings, but maybe for...construction, or mining. Really underground.”
Dean shook his head but didn’t follow it up with a comment on that. “How long do you wanna keep looking, Sam? What good will it do to find anybody?”
“What the hell does that mean?” Sam said, keeping his voice low by habit even though there was no one else but Dean to hear him. “Someone else might know what happened, might have seen something. You don’t think it’s important to see if anybody else is still alive?”
“Other people is the last thing we need, Sam,” Dean said. “They’ll freak out for a little while, then start getting weird about who’s in charge and how the world should be now. They’ll start yelling about how God punished humanity or whatever.”
“This isn’t a fucking Stephen King novel, Dean,” Sam said, leaning on his shovel. “This isn’t The Stand, or the one about the fog.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Dean said, turning his back on the open part of the grave but careful not to look at Sam yet. “Might as well be trapped in a supermarket with the town nutcase, the minute we run into anyone else. People revert right back to crazy chimp behavior the minute ‘civilization’ breaks down.
Someone will decide you’re the second coming or the anti-Christ yet again and we’ll have a whole pack of Gordons chasing us.”
Sam stared at him in amazement.
“Shut up,” Dean said. “I know how it is. There’s something about you, Sam, and if there’s only a handful of people left on the damn planet, they don’t get to take shots at you.” He turned back and began to replace the larger chunks of coffin and liner.
Sam kept staring.
Dean finally stood and brushed himself off, then made an exaggerated gesture toward the hole above the head of the coffin before jumping back up and standing above Sam.
Sam shook his head and filled in the smaller hole. They both filled in the larger hole, then leaned against the closed trunk of the car and listened to the world out of habit. No air traffic, no distant sound of semis on the nearby interstate downshifting.
“Donuts,” Dean said. “Gonna miss fresh donuts.”
They stopped back in Sioux City to find something to eat and for Sam to leave more notes behind. 9/16/08 left on signs, but instead of we were here Sam had decided to stick with numbers only. Not everyone spoke English, but math was universal. He left the coordinates for Bobby’s place, using the military system their father had when directing them on where to meet up. Someone would understand.
“And what if the wrong eyes see it, and get what it means?” Dean said. “We don’t know who or what is out there, yet, and you gotta give our one good hiding place away. And what if...”
Dean trailed off. He’d been about to voice a belief that Bobby might still be in residence on the planet, but he couldn’t do it.
Sam kept watching him with what looked like patience, but Dean knew it was sadness on the edge of panic.
“I just don’t want anybody showing up there,” Dean said. “It’s sort of the closest thing to home. I don’t wanna have to be watching our backs constantly.”
Sam’s mouth showed a brief quirk of humor. “You’ll be doing it anyway,” he said softly. “It’s who you are.”
Dean grunted, but he quit arguing with him about it after that.
They checked one more area hospital and a small medical center for signs of the living. A high school, a police station. No one had huddled there in hopes of being rescued or discovered.
They made it to Bobby’s just before dark.
They parked by the garage, not bothering to try and disguise their arrival. Nothing looked any different. They heard the dog barking long before they got near the door. It was a frantic bark that told the boys that he’d been alone long enough to get upset about it.
The door was unlocked, like usual. Rove shot out past them then wheeled back, snuffling, checking their hands and jumping up on them to look in their faces. Then he took off into the yard.
They didn’t bother calling for Bobby. It would be a pointless exercise for appearances only.
The house was still and cool. Any fire Bobby might have had in the woodstove had long since gone out on its own. There was no sign that he’d been in the middle of something when he went. His bed was unmade, but they didn’t know whether that was normal for him. If anyone on the planet would had been able to leave some sort of sign or message behind, it would have been Bobby.
Rove was hungry. They took him out to the garage and broke open all three fifty-pound bags of dog food that were out there and let him dig in. He could come and go and eat as he wished, that way. Rainwater had gathered in several steel tubs in the yard, so he’d have enough water.
They sat at Bobby’s table, looking at the bits and pieces of guns and machinery he’d been working on, recently-made silver bullets, newspaper clippings of one of the last hunts they’d been on.
Sam sifted through it all listlessly. They both felt out of place even though Bobby’s had been more of a home than most.
“The pets,”Sam said finally. “They’re all trapped inside, with nobody to feed them. They’ll starve to death. They’ll be scared. They’ll be so scared.”
His voice cracked at the end, and rested his head on his arms, face hidden.
Dean reached across and rested a hand on his shoulder, knowing it was about more than just pets, even though that was important. Sam was mourning the world.
They couldn’t open every single damn door in the suburban world. But if it would make Sam feel better, they could try and open as many as they could reach while they were passing through. The zoos -- they could unlock all the cages and run like hell. Pet stores, too. They could at least do that.
He ruffled Sam’s hair gently and said, “We’ll do whatever we can, okay? Let’s...check the place out, make sure it’s ready for winter. If everybody can just vanish like that, then there’s no reason they can’t just snap back into place, and he’ll be pissed off if the pipes break. I’m gonna go check and see what he’s got stocked up. You make coffee. He’s got one of those pots that doesn’t need electricity.”
He got up from the table and walked away. If he didn’t he was only going to end up crying with Sam.
Orphaned, all over again.
Dean took a look around even though he already knew Bobby was set up to be trapped for a good long time. Oil lamps, extra oil and gas, canned food, chopped wood. Batteries. Candles. Salt. He hadn’t necessarily been thinking about the entire world ending, but he’d been prepared for almost anything. They could get a couple of generators and keep them out in the garage, stay there for a couple of days and regroup, figure out what they were going to do next. Dean wasn’t ready to give up searching, yet, even though he felt in his bones that it was all over. They were trapped on a deserted island that happened to be the size of the planet.
He checked to see which of the trucks was still running, checked their fuel gauges. He’d take one and go into the hardware store in Mission. They wouldn’t want to hole up there for the winter; they’d go crazy once the snows came. Dean wanted to be able to keep moving, but he also wanted to be back. He wanted to keep using the place as a centerpoint. Maybe someone would see Sam’s spraypainted messages and come looking, leave something of their own.
Rove came back and followed him into the house and laid on the floor by the door. Dean got himself some coffee and sat across from Sam, who was scanning a pile of books he’d picked out of Bobby’s numerous stacks. Sam had lit several kerosene lamps, and it was a warm but eerie light.
“Lots of legends about the end of the world,” Sam said without looking up. His eyes were dry, but Dean knew better. “Nothing like this, though.”
Dean nodded. “We’re not the only people in the world who had salt at the door and protection symbols all over the place,” he said. “If there was something special about the motel we were in or even that town, then we’d have at least that much company.”
“So what are we,” Sam said, “untouchable?”
Dean looked down into his coffee. “We’ve never been so far,” he said softly. “Maybe...just passed over. Maybe there’s something about us that wasn’t the right combination to get a one-way ticket off this rock.”
Sam flipped pages but obviously wasn’t looking at them.
“Let’s go into town and grab a few things,” Dean said. “Then you can research all you want.”
For just a moment, the way Sam stilled, Dean was certain an emotional explosion would follow it. Sam looked like he might sweep everything onto the floor and start shouting. All he did was stand, though, and run one hand through his hair.
“What’s to stop one of us from waking up tomorrow morning alone?” he said. “What do I do, if you’re gone?”
Dean didn’t look at him. “Not gonna happen.”
“I just – “
“Not gonna happen, Sam,” Dean said gruffly, rising. “C’mon, let’s go. I don’t wanna fuck around out there in the dark any longer than we have to.”
Like before, the total darkness was disorienting. Not even emergency backup lights were visible on any of the buildings in town. Nothing ran across the road in front of them. It took Dean a little while with just headlights to make sure they were even headed in the right direction; everything looked so damn foreign. Once he found the hardware store, he left the headlights on and shining into the front windows.
With the engine killed, there was nothing to hear.
They left the door propped open and went in, flashlights on. They stayed together the entire time.
Dean picked out a camp stove and a grill and two generators, which they put into the back of the truck. Sam hesitated.
“Knock it off,” Dean said as he put the tailgate up.
Sam looked at him in the reflected light from the headlights.
“It’s not looting if there’s no one left to own it,” Dean said.
Sam sighed. “It all takes a little getting used to, okay?”
There were pork chops in Bobby’s freezer that were still frozen at the core. Dean put them on the grill outside and used the camp stove to begin boiling potatoes, and got the woodstove going again. Sam hooked up one of the generators in the meantime, finding what he and Dean had known they would: Bobby’s electrical system was pretty damned old and needed an upgrade. Sam could rewire enough of it to patch the generator in, but he’d known it wasn’t going to be simple. Dean came out and yelled at him to come eat dinner or else, so Sam gave it up for the moment.
Dean set two chops aside to cool for the dog, who was very interested in all of what was going on. They ate mashed potatoes with butter and pork chops and still slightly cool beer out of the fridge while Rove gnawed on the bones of his portion.
“To Bobby,” Dean said, tilting his bottle at Sam.
Sam let the glass of his own bottle clink with Dean’s. “To Bobby.”
It was likely all the memorial he would have wanted. They felt his absence keenly in the old house.
Dean went back out with Sam to wrangle with the generator, and within half an hour, they managed to get it going. Dean made sure there was enough gas in it to keep it going awhile. They turned the lights on and discovered the house was running off two separate fuse boxes, so half the house lit up and the other half didn’t. Dean just laughed. At least the half that worked included the hot water heater.
They took turns in the shower after the water heated back up, then Dean went out and shut the generator off. They turned in in the guest room they’d always shared, one bed and two worried boys.
They kept trying to catch something, anything on the crank radio, and failed. Not the weather, not the time, nothing came over the air.
Sam spent most of the day reading, checking old legends and prophesies and Bobby’s old journals of everything he’d ever seen or heard. Eyewitness accounts from other hunters, ancient lore. There were so many ways for the world to end, so many ways it had been foretold over centuries, but none of them mentioned this. Even had something like the Rapture been a possibility, there would have been someone besides Sam and Dean left behind. Plagues, famines, the intervention of deities, these he understood. But none of them had come to pass.
He reread the Book of Revelations.
It wouldn’t make much difference if he did figure out what had happened; what was done was done. Whatever the hell had been done.
Dean got under the crawlspace and made sure the pipes were wrapped for winter. Rove ‘helped’. They didn’t intend to stay, but they meant to be back, and Dean didn’t want to take the risk of making the house uninhabitable. He didn’t want to be fixing the plumbing before he absolutely had to, either.
He circled the house with the dog, checking the roofline, looking for trouble spots. He didn’t want to bug Sam, even if he didn’t think there was anything to be found that might shed light on the whole thing. He knew there had to be a solid reason behind it all. Not one that necessarily made sense, but some sort of explanation all the same, and he didn’t want to begrudge Sam the chance to occupy himself and try and figure it all out. He just didn’t feel that they would find it in books. Nobody had warned humanity about this one.
Wasn’t like they could do anything about it, anyway. So Dean chose to worry about what he could control.
That would work for awhile.
Sam was uncharacteristically silent for not being pissed off, and Dean let him be except to make him help clean out Bobby’s fridge and freezer. They cooked up whatever sounded good and left a good bit of the rest out for the dog. They cleared out the perishables to keep the place from becoming a moldfest once they were gone...wherever the hell they were going.
They tried not to eye anything Bobby might have made too closely. His handiwork was all over the house, but the leftovers were too personal, somehow.
It was hard to eat. Neither of them acknowledged it.
“I don’t think...he’s dead,” Sam said. “It doesn’t make any sense, if everybody’s dead.”
Dean didn’t answer one way or the other. It didn’t make sense no matter which way he tried to turn it in his head.
Dean went out to the garage and messed with a couple of the ham radios Bobby had out there, checking to see if there was anything but static on the airwaves.
Sam kept reading long into the night, until Dean hassled him into coming in and reading in bed. That way, Dean could sleep, even with the light on, because Sam was in the same room.
It was Sam who left a note taped to the inside of the glass on the back door, and Dean who locked the house.
They each spent a moment looking back at the house. It was familiar. The roads and surrounding area, the towns nearby, the cities beyond, all seen before and so familiar. But no longer the same. No longer as recognizable. It was disorienting.
Rove watched them from the garage, ducking his head back in periodically to eat from the open bags. If the dog food attracted rats, he would probably eat them too. He was better off outside and running loose to handle the new order of things however he saw fit.
Sam flipped a coin and they headed west on the 90, pausing in Rapid City to check hospitals and schools and fire departments yet again. There was no sign of life, but there was still electricity, so they holed up in the Hotel Alex Johnson, a huge old building that Dean remembered from some Hitchcock flick. Dean wandered around the floors and decided one of the presidential suites would be fine. Sam was too tired to so much as roll his eyes. He’d slept for awhile in the car, and Dean was glad, because even though the silence was beginning to freak him out, Sam’s growing despondence was worse.
Sam found a wireless connection and tooled around for awhile, and Dean flipped channels to see whether there was anything left, anywhere. Even the cable channels had stopped broadcasting.
“Figured out why we still have power,” Sam said without looking up from the laptop. “Rapid City’s on the boundary of the western and eastern power grids. We’re at one of the points where the power grids meet each other. Plus its own coal-fired plant, and...hydroelectric from dams on the Missouri.”
Dean looked out the windows, down onto narrow streets and lower brick buildings with red and green awnings. “Dams,” he said. “Wonder how long they’ll last.”
Sam tapped his fingers along one edge of the keyboard, frown developing. “Lots of flooding when they start to go,” he said.
Dean let his gaze slide along the rooftops below, watching for any sign of movement aside from the birds. “Might go for years,” he said. “Lots of failsafes in place, right?”
His tone was noncommital, and Sam heard what he didn’t say. “Temporary,” he said. “Meant for short-term emergency situations.”
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Like chemical plants, and all the damn nuclear waste sitting around in rusting drums. Hell of a legacy the whole race left behind.”
Sam bolted upright hard enough to tip his chair over, and Dean startled away from the window. The look on Sam’s face was one of open shock.
“The nuclear plants,” Sam said, swallowing hard and glancing around the room like some kind of answer might appear on the walls. “They’ll melt down. The radiation. Jesus Christ, Dean, there’s nowhere to go.”
“What’s – “
“We don’t even know where the hell they are,” Sam said. “All the dams, the chemical plants, the refineries. Bobby would have left us some kind of hint if he could have, but it all happened too fast. If anything happened. So if everybody went that fast, then there was no one to leave warnings or flip any switches and shut anything down. The coffee pots.”
Dean made his not following face, one Sam had seen a million times.
Sam began to pace, sweat breaking out on his forehead and upper lip. “If it was already on and meant to run by itself with just some monitoring...that’s what we’ve been seeing. In the houses we were in. Nobody left a stove on. It was morning, and when you’re done with a burner or a stove, you shut it right off. A coffee pot sits and heats for a couple of hours and shuts itself off. Those were the kinds of things we found on. The big factories and stuff would just run until the grid shut down. The grid is shutting down everywhere, Dean. And there’s nobody to monitor anything and nobody shut anything off on the way out.”
The same horror of awareness that was on Sam’s face also dawned on Dean’s. “Just about everything needs monitoring,” he said softly.
“Stuff...will overheat, and blow,” Sam said. “There’s gonna be clouds of radiation and chemicals and shit all over the planet. Either it fails before the grid goes, or it fails because the grid goes. We’re fucked.”
“Calm down,” Dean said, voice dropping into a gruff command. “Come on, it’s not gonna be that bad. Not everything is gonna blow. Some of it might just shut itself down. All we have to do is find out where the worst stuff is, and get the hell away from it.”
“You’re talking about hiding,” Sam said. “Not all nuclear plants are active anymore, yeah, but of the ones left, some are gonna burn. Chernobyl. Don’t you remember that? Just one reactor went, one, and it sent radioactive fallout all the way to fucking Sweden. It killed everything for miles. Every damn city’s got chemical plants, stuff like ammonia and pesticides and heavy metals and other shit we can’t even imagine. I mean, do you wanna go the rest of your life in a hazmat suit?”
“Sam,” Dean said, “sit down before I knock you on your ass.”
Sam paused to catch his breath, coming to stand at the windows by Dean. “We gotta figure out what to do. We can’t just wander around the world, anymore. It’s not bad enough that everybody’s gone. Everything else is gonna go, too.”
“While we’ve still got wireless,” Dean said, folding his arms across his chest, “let’s just find out where the worst of everything is, and steer clear. We can test for stuff, too, in the air, find places to crash where there’s the least amount of risk. Okay? We can do this.”
Sam nodded, hands at hips, mouth pressed into the line Dean feared the most. Sam in shut-down mode was harder to deal with than a rattled Sam. Especially when Dean was an instant from being rattled and pacing around the room, maybe hyperventilating, maybe trashing a place that presidents had once stayed.
Well, fuck it. He was president of the United States, suddenly, because there was no one else for the job.
“There has to be something like EMF meters, but for radiation and chemicals,” Dean said.
Sam lit up a little. “Uh...yeah, but I don’t remember what they’re called.”
“Whatever the hell it is, someone’ll have been selling them all over the place,” Dean said. “We put some precautions in place, we’ll be fine. It won’t be that bad, Sammy.”
Still...he knew. The world just wasn’t quite done ending, yet.
Sam couldn’t type fast enough, checking every active nuclear power plant and saving a list, writing them down in case they lost the laptop or had no way of booting it up again. Of the roughly 100 plants and reactors in the US, a significant number had been shut down and were in no danger of starting a chain reaction. Of those that were active, the majority were near major bodies of water for coolant purposes. Of those, the area with the fewest active plants that were still in a temperate region that wouldn’t freeze them out in winter or bake them to a crisp in the summer (and didn’t have major chemical plants installed) were the worst of the faultlines through CA. The entire south was out because of the possibility of tornadoes and hurricanes. Of the disasters that nature could hit them with on a regular basis, they had to avoid those. Texas alone was oil refinery hell and not worth the risk.
There was nowhere they could go, in the world, and not be at risk for some kind of contamination.
“Sooner or later, we’ve gotta settle somewhere,” Sam said finally. “We can’t just go walking into whatever’s floating around out there. ‘Cause there’s no doctors. Just us.”
“We can take care of each other just fine,” Dean said immediately. “Look. Let’s get the hell out of here, go find a couple of...what is it?”
“Dosimeters,” Sam said.
“We’ll get whatever we need together, just in case. We’re not gonna run into that kind of trouble, but we can be prepared. That’ll make y– us. That’ll make us feel better.”
If Sam caught the stumble, he didn’t let on.
They found an Army/Navy store three blocks over and discovered that the residents of mining areas kept a healthy dose of paranoia active even after the cold war; they found four kinds of dosimeters, their chargers, and two styles of Geiger counters. Sam took them all.
Dean spent ten minutes slapping Sam away as Sam tried to pin something called a film badge dosimeter on him and then make him put a pen-shaped one in a pocket.
“Leave ‘em in the car,” Dean said. “Jesus, we’re okay. We’ve got stuff to do, we’ll figure this stuff out later.”
Sam eyed him.
“I said we’ve got stuff to do,” Dean said. “Hurry up.”
Sam didn’t ask him any questions, just settled into the passenger seat and read the instructions for the Geiger counters.
Dean circled around the densest downtown areas, looking for anything out of place and some kind of sign of life aside from the birds and the occasional loose dog that was looking for garbage to root in. He noticed the cars again. None were blocking the main roads or side streets, none had crashed into each other or into the buildings. Not one had gone up onto the sidewalk. The only ones left had already been at a stop when their drivers had vanished. Where the hell had they gone? Sam was right, no one had had the time to shut anything off or figure out what was going on; did the cars vanish with the people? What the hell for?
Yeah, well, he thought. File that one away with the other big questions, since no one’s going to answer.
The suburbs began just south of I-90, and the first neighborhoods he began to see were full of eighties and nineties-style construction, multi level homes with attached garages. They passed several haphazardly arranged apartment buildings in painted standard tans and grays. He picked one street and pulled over.
Sam glanced up, forehead still wrinkled with concentration. “What’re we – “
“When it starts to get dark,” Dean said, “we meet back here. And we keep the radios on at all times. You got me?”
“What’re we – “
“Just open the doors, don’t go searching the places,” Dean said, cutting him off again. “Not everything’s gonna want to come out, and some of the dogs might want a piece or two of us, thinkin’ that we’re breaking in. Don’t force it, just open stuff and go on to the next place.”
Sam looked at him for a moment with total and complete understanding. Dean had learned to both fear and hope for that look, because it came so rarely and knew him too well. Sam knew exactly what he was doing. Yeah, Dean didn’t want to think of all the pets left to be scared and starve to death, but he also wanted to give him and Sam something to do, some way to affect what had happened. All the rest of it was out of their control, but they had this one little thing they could do.
“You get bit, I’m gonna be pissed,” Dean said, purposely looking away. “I’m serious. And don’t come out here with, like, a batch of kittens or something. I’ll kill you.”
Sam got out of the car and checked his radio, clicking it a couple of times to make sure it was audible on Dean’s. Then he headed for the nearest house.
Dean watched him go for a moment, then headed for the other side of the street.
It was a whole day of kicking in locked doors and simply opening the unlocked ones. Sometimes a dog or a cat ran out, but most often not. Dean figured most of the cats just hid because a lot of them were unfriendly little bastards anyway. A couple of the dogs he encountered rushed the door with a lot of teeth when he opened it, and he’d backed away in a hurry with a lot of hey, hey Fido, down boy. Nothing really tried to attack him. He heard a bird yelling occasionally, and went in and opened the cages. He would never tell Sam, but he had let a bunch of gerbils and hamsters go, too. It seemed kind of pointless, because they were rodents, and the whole world was going to be overrun by the little bastards as it was. But hey, they probably wouldn’t last long anyway, once it got really cold. It was still better than starving.
He and Sam checked in once every half hour. Once, Sam was laughing.
Dean sat in a stairwell of an apartment building and put his head in his hands, right after that. They were going to be okay, they were going to be okay, they were going to be okay.
One cat, some big brown tabby with a fluffy tail, followed him from door to door after he let it out. It was whining and begging for something to eat, and twining around his legs no matter how fast he tried to walk. Why did people keep those things? It purred and grabbed at the denim on his legs, snagging its claws. He went into the next apartment and opened the fridge, and there was some leftover roast in foil in there that still smelled okay. He crumbled it on the floor and then took off, hoping it would eat and then leave him alone.
He was careful not to look around at the things that people left behind, their furniture and their pictures, the detritus of their hopes and dreams and details. It made them real again, and truly missing.
When he’d opened every door in the building, he propped the outer doors open as well, and took off into the next neighborhood.
House to house, he opened as many doors as he could, and broke windows where he couldn’t. He left the gates of back yards open, opened anything that looked like a pen, wondered if they should check a few farms in the outlying areas and make sure the horses and cows could all get out if they needed to.
It was going to become an obsession, if he wasn’t careful; too many to try and save, most of whom wouldn’t make it on their own anyway.
The absence of the sound of life was beginning to weigh on him, and he tried to shake it off yet again. No human voices, no cars, no aircraft. Just a breeze running through open doors and an occasional barking dog. The utter absence of other voices unnerved him into nearly checking in with Sam earlier and earlier. He hummed to himself to avoid it.
He found a cage of ferrets in one house, and hesitated to open it. They were looking at him with way too much intelligence – little masked faces and unblinking dark eyes. Clutching at the bars like tiny prisoners.
He unlatched the cage from arm’s length, then went right back out the door.
When it started to get dark, he realized he hadn’t eaten all damn day and doubted that Sam had either. “Sammy, c’mon. We gotta pack it up.”
There was a crackle of static, then the sound of open air on Sam’s end. “Just a couple more.”
Yeah, this was going to be a bitch. He started walking back toward the car. He was blocks away, and he knew he and Sam had covered a pretty good area, overall. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing it, but he knew he’d at least tried to fix some part of the whole mess.
He waited ten minutes before he buzzed Sam again. “I’m coming to get you, just give me cross streets.”
“Uh...wait, I gotta go back outside.”
Dean waited. Someone’s dog ran by him, nose to ground, eyes darting sideways to check him out. He thought he recognized it as one he’d let out, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Okay,” Sam said. “I see train tracks...I’m on east Waterloo. There’s a whole group of really ugly off-white houses, and one’s got pillars.”
“Everything okay?” Dean said.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “No problems.”
He was lying, and Dean could hear it in his voice, even over a simple wireless walkie-talkie. Sam sucked at forced nonchalance. He would be feeling sorry for everything and everyone and the way things had been left and left behind. It was who he was.
When Dean reached the car, nothing was different. He leaned against it for a long moment, thinking about how he’d like to liberate a beer from the confines of its bottle. He drove slowly, watching for what might dart out into the road. He loved irony as much as the next guy, but accidentally running over a pet he’d just saved wasn’t his favorite brand. He cruised down a couple of streets, trying to acclimate himself and look for the tracks Sam had mentioned. There were lights on in a lot of houses, left on in the wake of Moment Zero. It made everything look just a little normal for a moment, and Dean resisted the urge to let himself fall into the hope that they would wake up in the morning and discover the whole thing had been a blip in reality.
Sam showed up in his headlights, sitting on the edge of a curb with something dark and four-legged wiggling excitedly around his legs. Dean left the car running and the lights on and got out. When he did, a black lab puppy nearly fell down trying to decide if it should stay with Sam or come look at Dean. It finally ran for him, flapping its big paws and giant head, ears pinned back and tail tucked in submission, wiggling and whimpering with excitement.
“Hey,” Dean said, crouching down to get an armful of puppy. “Hey, buddy. Guess what? You’re free. No more collars or leashes, nobody telling you to sit and feeding you that dry crap anymore, right? We’re the last people left, so, on behalf of humanity, I break the contract or whatever. Turn back into wolves and stuff.”
It bounced away from him and back toward Sam, trying to burrow into his chest. Sam quirked a smile and dug his hands into dark fur and loose folds of skin, pressing his face into its side.
Dean looked around, and tried to focus on the sound of the engine, because aside from Sam and the puppy, there was nothing left to hear. The quiet was going to chip his sanity away long before anything else did.
“Sammy,” he said. “Don’t wanna be out after dark. Not yet.”
Sam nodded but didn’t move, still cuddling the puppy. He was on the verge of tears again, and Dean didn’t really want to stop it. If Sam was getting all emotional, then it was because he was dealing.
“The dog’s’ll form packs and go feral,” Dean said. “Shit, sometimes they do it anyway, out in the country. He’ll get adopted by some other dogs, and be okay. Sammy, these guys all have to figure out how to do without people, and the sooner the better. I know it’s not all about the puppy, okay? I get it. But I don’t know what else to tell you, man.”
Sam didn’t need to hear any of it; but he needed to hear something, so Dean provided it. He needed to hear it, himself. Trying to make Sam feel better gave him something to work at so that he didn’t fall to the ground and cover his face and start screaming.
Sam finally rose and left the puppy on the sidewalk. It jumped on him, front paws scrabbling at his legs, little ears flopping. Sam looked down on it for a moment, then stepped away carefully and headed for the car. He had to dislodge the puppy twice to keep it from getting in with him.
It sat on the sidewalk and watched them drive away, looking confused and lost.
They got back on the main arterial toward the hotel before Dean felt he could talk past the lump in his throat. He reached over and grabbed the back of Sam’s neck, pulling. Sam tipped, forehead pressed to Dean’s thigh, and sobbed, hands clenching the fabric at Dean’s knee and hip. Dean tangled one hand into Sam’s hair, thumb rubbing at his scalp. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, Sammy.”
He wasn’t apologizing for not being able to do anything about it all; he was just lost for what else to do or say. Somewhere in Sam there was still a little boy that looked to Dean to fix everything, and somewhere in Dean – much, much closer to the surface – was a big brother who desperately wanted to. He missed the world, too, already.
It wasn’t a chick-flick moment if chick flicks no longer really existed.
The next morning was spent with Dean forcing Sam to putter around the kitchen with him and then forcing him to eat.
“We won’t have to worry about food for years,”Dean said.
“We should still think about growing our own, though, eventually,” Sam said. “The world ended, like, less than a week ago, but I’m already thinking we should plan out the future a little.”
“Settling down,” Dean said, leaning against the counter and sipping coffee.
“Mainly so we don’t run into the worst of the stuff we were talking about yesterday,” Sam said, swirling one edge of his toast in egg yolk. “There are parts of the world we have to stay out of, no matter what. We need to keep a good fifty miles between us and any nuclear reactor all the time, and stay the hell out of Texas because almost all the infrastructure there is built over pipelines. I still...I mean, we should keep checking around a few of the major cities. I don’t think there’s anyone left, but we should.”
“Just for something to do?” Dean said.
“So that we know,” Sam said, keeping his eyes down. “That everything’s empty. Of people, anyway. There still might be someone who was underground, and made it. And we can check to make sure there isn’t anything left lurking around. Demons will have left some kind of sign behind. If nothing else, we can keep stocking up and really decide where we’re gonna...live.”
“You’re not gonna let me get away with a mansion in Beverly Hills, are you,” Dean said flatly.
“Yeah, that’s gonna do you a lot of good while the power’s off,” Sam said. “We gotta pick somewhere there isn’t gonna be a lot of wildfires, that’s good for growing stuff year round. Somewhere safe.”
Dean thought about that for a long moment. Safe was relative. Sam was talking about it like it was attainable, like it was about avoiding radiation and fires. Dean’s first knee-jerk thought was that settling down in one place felt like giving up, but rationally, he knew Sam was right. There was no point wandering around all over when there was no one to check on and nothing to fight with.
“Become farmers and keep cows and stuff?” Dean said. “I’m not wearing one of those straw hats.”
“There are lots of farms and orchards that’ll keep going for several years,” Sam said. “All by themselves. They’ll go wild pretty quick, but not yet, and even all the wild animals coming in isn’t going to be that big of an impact at first. Canned veggies and fruits, peanut butter, and soups all expire within a year. Stuff like cereal, too. In two years, max, none of that stuff will be good anymore.”
Dean shrugged. No surprise that Sam had been researching.
“Wheat, veggie oils, baking powder, and coffee can all be stored indefinitely,” Sam said. “Bouillon, rice, pastas. Stuff like that. So the only thing we’ll have to do after awhile is grab chickens to keep them from going completely wild, and keep a couple of cows for milk and beef.”
“I’m not giving up bacon,” Dean said. “So, pigs, too. Because they’ll eat anything.”
“I’m going to name all the chickens Teriyaki,” Dean said. “What’re you, thinking of just finding a small farm and taking it over?”
“Something like that,” Sam said. “Most are in the midwest, though, the breadbasket of the country, right? Too much of a freeze-thaw cycle in the midwest, too much for two people to handle. We don’t want severe winters or weather, Dean. Plus, lots of reactors in the midwest.”
“California had the fewest,” Dean said.
“Worst thing we’d have to worry about is in Arizona,” Sam said. “The biggest one in the country is there, southwest of Phoenix. If we hung out in central California, near a reservoir or something, we’d have plenty of renewable water.”
“And we can rig up solar panels and stuff,” Dean said. “Plenty of ways to get plumbing and irrigation to work by gravity. How long will batteries last?”
“Most are good until at least 2014,” Sam said. “Says so on the Duracells I just put in our radios.”
“Twinkies have a shelf life of twenty five years,” Dean said.
Sam tilted his head forward to give him a look that said come on. “I’m not living on Twinkies.”
Dean was silent for nearly a minute while Sam finished breakfast. It was overcast outside again and looked like it might rain. The leaves were just beginning to turn. They had maybe six weeks to hunker down somewhere and let winter pass. By spring they’d know for sure whether the world was actually going to keep doing its thing, or whether it was just dying altogether and humanity’s disappearance had been a symptom of something else.
“Never imagined we’d end up farmers,” he said softly. He quirked his brows when he realized how ridiculous the statement sounded out loud.
“Or the last people on the planet?” Sam said.
“Hey, we don’t know there’s nobody left in China,” Dean said. “Not likely to find out, either.”
“I get the feeling you’re still thinking there’s a big paranormal common denominator, here,” Sam said, leaning back in his chair.
Dean shrugged. “Just because we haven’t found any evidence yet doesn’t mean something didn’t purposely cause this,” he said. “And just because there’s no big prophecy to back it up...all that means is we didn’t listen all the time or catch on to all the big hints.”
“If someone or something did this on purpose,” Sam said, “they obviously didn’t want an audience.”
Dean nodded and rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to get a knot out and unconsciously comforting himself. “Still, how many ways do you know of that could make this happen normally?”
Sam drew patterns in the crumbs on his plate with his fork. “Demons do things messy. Busting out of hellgates, tearing people up. They make big gestures, and enjoy it. I mean, Azazel was a fallen. He was one of the fucking Grigori, Dean. It doesn’t get much bigger than that, unless you wanna cop to God and the standard angels like Gabriel and Michael. If God’s out there, he’s been real subtle up to now in comparison. Where are we headed with this? Aliens?”
Dean snorted. “They’ve been real subtle up to now, then, too,” he said. He came and sat across from Sam at the table. “Could still be an alternate reality. We’ve seen those before, too, and this doesn’t feel like that. You said you didn’t see anything ahead of time or feel anything, but what’s it feel like now?”
Sam swallowed hard and kept his eyes down. “I wouldn’t mind thinking we dropped through some kind of thin place in the world and ended up in a mirror version,” he said. “Easier, that way. I mean, when I woke up that morning, I knew something was different. Probably because everything was so quiet. I don’t know.”
Dean looked at him but didn’t press.
It wasn’t like they were in any kind of hurry.
They did all their laundry in the machines in the basement, knowing it was likely going to be by hand from then on out. It wasn’t like they hadn’t made a habit of that already, when they were somewhere without a laundromat.
Sam fooled around online while he still could, jotting notes and marking maps. Dean packed their stuff and laid on one of the beds to stare at Sam for awhile.
“What,” Sam said finally.
“West, or south?” Dean said. “Plenty of major cities we could look at from here. Then we can hole up in California for the winter.”
Sam shrugged. “Next big city west of here is Billings, and south of here is Denver. Then west to Salt Lake City.”
“Billings,” Dean said. “‘Cause if we get to SLC and there’s no one left on the planet but a lot of Mormons, I’m gonna be really pissed off.”
“What’s wrong with Mormons?” Sam said.
Dean glanced at him incredulously.
“I mean, over any other organized religion,” Sam said.
“Because it’ll mean one of ‘em was right,” Dean said. “Somebody actually guessed the answer, and they’ll be all smug about it.”
“Better than Scientologists,” Sam said. “Right? Tom Cruise ruling the world?”
Dean rubbed at his eyes. “Oh, man. That’s not even funny.”
“I get that you’re trying to keep me from freaking out,” Sam said. “And I love you for it, okay? Just...I’m okay. So quit staring at me.”
Dean rolled his eyes.
“You’re trying not to freak out, too,” Sam said.
“No, I’m not,” Dean said. “Shut up, I’m trying to have a nap, over here.”
Sam sighed, an entirely normal sound, and went back to searching catastrophe preparedness websites.
At 4:29 pm, the power died.
Sam clicked the laptop shut, and found Dean staring at him from the bed. The last of the grid had collapsed.
Dean ran down to the lobby and picked up copies of the last newspapers humanity had ever produced. They ate dinner by candlelight in their room, looking for signs in print that something odd might have been going on.
Sam fell asleep on one of the beds while reading some book on true crime he’d found behind the check-in desk. Dean blew out the candles and stared out the windows long into the night, beginning to wonder if something else would happen or if the big surprise had already landed.
He glanced over at Sam, then found it was hard to look away. Sam had brought up the possibility that one of them might vanish during the night and leave the other as last man standing, and the idea had sunk in harder than Dean wanted to admit, even to himself. What if?
Yeah, one more thing they didn’t have control over. But he couldn’t shake the idea.
Sometime after two, Sam startled awake. “Dean?”
“Here,” Dean said immediately, crosslegged on his own bed.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Just not tired. Go back to sleep, we gotta drive all over hell tomorrow.”
He heard Sam lay back down, but he could still feel his attention.
They showered with the last of the still-warm water and packed the car. Sam left dates and coordinates at the front desk in the lobby, on the big windows facing the street, spraypainted them on several bigger street signs just off the freeway. Numbers almost anybody could understand, no matter where they were from.
His tally now included Iowa and South Dakota. Sixteen million, gone.
“Manhattan’s flooded by now,” he said to Dean suddenly as they were passing Gillette on the 90. Wyoming was looking even more spread out and bigger than the last time they’d been through. It wasn’t like a hell of a lot of people had lived there in the first place, but there was something about it.
“The subway tunnels,” Sam said, tone as offhand as it had been on any case. “Manhattan is built right over rivers. Into them, in places, where they just filled the rivers in. So it takes – took – a huge system of pumps to keep the water back and out of the sewers and tunnels. Millions of gallons. It used to get bad enough when there was too much rain, and the tunnels would flood anyway. So the whole damn city’s flooded at street level by now. The streets’ll freeze this winter and crack with all that ice, and by spring a hell of a lot of weeds’ll move in. So much for civilization, right?”
Sam was working on dealing with things by turning them into facts. Dean could admire that. It was better than sitting awake in the dark trying to convince himself that Sam wasn’t going to disappear when he blinked or turned his attention away just long enough.
“Wasn’t all that civil to begin with,” Dean said. “How long do you think it’ll be before it all goes back to rivers, then?”
Sam shrugged. “Stuff’ll fall apart in a matter of years, but maybe not all the way for a good five hundred years or so. All that steel.”
They were so good at adapting. It had begun to seem plausible that everyone was really gone, instead of intolerable and insane.
They cut south to Casper, then down to Cheyenne. There were dogs and birds and a few whitetails roaming and nothing else. Sam left more dates and coordinates and added Wyoming to his tally: about five hundred thousand people.
They spent the night in Cheyenne. There was nothing left but emergency lights from wind turbines or residual solar energy. Everything else was gone, even the emergency generators. It had been a week, and things had lasted longer than either of them had really hoped.
Dean listened, constantly, waiting for something to else hear. Waiting for Sam to speak. Listening to him breathe.
Sam caught him awake again and shoved their beds together, saying he felt better that way. Dean said nothing. But he dozed for awhile.
They awoke to the smell of smoke.
At first it seemed so normal that neither of them really cared, but then it sank in and they bolted out of bed and to the nearest window. When that didn’t reveal much, Dean went out in the hallway to listen and breathe, hyperalert to the possibility that it was the building that was on fire.
“It’s not us,” he said. “But let’s get the hell out of here anyway.”
They threw their stuff together and stood by the car, trying to center on the cause. To the east was a haze, but they didn’t see flames. The air had an acrid smell, the burning of plastics and artificial fabrics in addition to wood.
“Nobody to fight it, anymore,” Sam said. “Could be lightning, or static electricity. Could have started while the power was still on.”
They glanced at each other over the top of the car. Whole areas were going to vanish that way. Sooner or later, most areas would vanish that way.
They headed south again, to Fort Collins and Boulder and then Denver. They kicked in random doors but didn’t look further. They found an REI and stocked up on survival gear, jackets and extra pairs of boots and water treatment kits. A couple of backpack stoves and a camping stove with plenty of extra fuel. Dean found a camping percolator. They spent the day turning Denver into another stockpile of fuel and medical supplies, choosing basements and large fireproof safes this time after realizing that fire could take it all. Sam checked both the Geiger counters compulsively and never seemed to completely believe it when nothing registered.
Population of Colorado: roughly five million. Sam’s tally rose to 21.5 million total.
That night he shoved the beds together automatically. Dean not only said nothing about it, he didn’t so much as blink.
They stayed south on the 25 for awhile.
“Map says the Air Force Academy is coming up in a few miles,” Sam said. “Curious?”
“Not really,” Dean said. “Think maybe the military cooked this up by accident, and they’re all hanging out at bases and stuff now thinking, ‘oh, shit’?”
“Good place to hide if you’re one of the last ones left,” Sam said. “Most of these military buildings are easy to defend, have all kind of backup systems.”
Dean wrinkled his nose. “Anybody with the military might be the last people we really wanna run into, last of humanity or not.”
They stayed south and went into Colorado Springs. Finding everything looking the same as everywhere else had become less of a shock and more of an expectation. It didn’t mean they weren’t wary; it simply meant they were ready to pick out the details a little better, if anything was different. Colorado Springs was not the place to give them any hints, though.
Dean went into a Starbucks and got several pounds of ground coffee and a French press. “Maybe if I just...smell it, for awhile, I’ll fuckin’ wake up,” he said. “I’m gonna be reduced to eating the beans, soon.”
“If you got some sleep, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Sam said. “It’s not like we don’t have anything to be freaked out about, but you’re gonna crash, sooner or later.”
Dean made a noncommital sound.
“I can drive today, and you can get some sleep,” Sam offered.
“Would you knock it off?” Dean said. “I’m fine.”
“Sure,” Sam said. “Fall asleep at the wheel and get the last people left on earth killed.”
Dean sighed and walked back outside. He stood and stared at the street for a minute or so, wondering how long it would be before weeds and ice and all kind of other stuff would start just breaking it apart.
Sam came to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.
“I’m gonna miss cheeseburgers,” Dean said. “Might shoot a cow just to try and get one.”
“Don’t go wasting cows,” Sam said.
“No reason to save ‘em,” Dean said. “Shit, are we gonna have to make our own cheese, too?”
“Cheese lasts a long time. Dean, you realize we’re standing out here talking about...nothing, right? Do you wanna stop for a couple of days?”
Dean looked at him incredulously. “And do what? What the hell’s the matter with you, Sam?”
“The world we know ended,” Sam said simply. For once, while making an obvious statement, his tone was not laced with sarcasm. “We’ve got nothing else left to fight for but each other, so, don’t make that any harder than it is.”
Dean carefully looked out into the street, again. “I wish it was all back,” he said. “I wish the cops were looking for us and all kinds of evil shit was trying to kill us. Humanity was kind of dumb, for the most part, but...Jesus. We didn’t have it easy, but it was better than this.”
Sam kept his hands in his pockets. Dean was beginning to scare him, a little. Sam felt like he was still in shock, that he would wake up again and the world would have started all over, but he was beginning to accept that it would never happen. He was reacting in an attempt to deal. Dean was doing what Dean always did: slam it all down and act, keep moving until what had happened didn’t matter anymore or until there was something bigger to deal with. It wasn’t going to work, for once.
“What the hell day is it?” Dean said. “It doesn’t even matter anymore.”
“It’s Monday the 22nd,” Sam said. “Sure it matters. We can keep track. That’s...there’s no reason not to.”
“Time’s a manmade concept, Sam,” Dean said softly. “Stuff happens in cycles, and we just put numbers on it to make it look like we know something about it.”
Sam debated for several minutes before leaving a date and coordinates on a couple of street signs. He realized he had made himself timekeeper for a clock that no longer had hands.
They got on the 24 headed northwest out of Colorado Springs, following miles and miles of cattle fencing. A lot of hay fields had been harvested in the preceding weeks, and huge rolls of the stuff sat at regular intervals. The last harvest.
They took the 67 west for awhile until they could pick up the 24 north again, leading them back to the 70. After that it was hours of road and Dean’s tape collection. They stopped twice to refuel and use the restroom and check the tires and poke around for food. That, at least, had not changed. At one truck stop just inside the Utah border, Sam looked through the tapes on an old rack that said Always $2.99! hoping to find something Dean would appreciate that he didn’t already have. Something to distract him a little. Or keep him awake. It occurred to him to find a book store and look through the books on tape. He’d gotten Dean one before, something Anne Rice had done under a pseudonym, some retelling of Sleeping Beauty that amounted to soft porn. Dean had listened to it and laughed his ass off for days afterward. That’s my boy, he’d said. That is one crazy bitch. She writes this when she’s not writing about vampires?
Dean came down the aisle Sam was on and picked up some sunflower seeds. He was sipping a Coke out of a can and glancing around like maybe they’d still get yelled at for shoplifting.
“Think it’s still a little too early to cut the credit cards up?” Dean said.
“No,” Sam said, picking Def Leppard’s Hysteria off the tape rack. He recalled that Dean’s copy had broken months earlier and they hadn’t gotten around to replacing it; not one of Dean’s absolute favorites, anyway. But Sam suddenly had an urge to hear Gods Of War at top volume. “Wanna stay in Salt Lake for the night? If it isn’t burning, or anything, I mean.”
“Yeah, sure,” Dean said, but his gaze was a little vacant and centered on the empty streets outside the plate glass windows.
It was late when they got to Salt Lake. They checked carefully for smoke, driving slowly around a couple of blocks with the windows open. They found a Hilton and chose the second floor, easy enough to get out of in case of fire and still high enough to deter anyone or anything that might be prowling around.
Sam knew they were in trouble when Dean didn’t make a single Paris Hilton joke.
He dug around in the big walk-in freezer and found that most of the things in the center were still frozen. He thawed a couple of stuffed chicken breasts on the camping stove and steamed some mixed vegetables, tucking a six pack of beer into the center of the freezer to chill. When he looked up, Dean was leaning against the entryway into the kitchen, staring at Sam. He looked so weary for a moment that Sam stepped back from the stove to turn toward him.
He felt as if he’d been crying all day, maybe for days, and the air seemed heavy enough to leave a film on his eyes. So he wondered how the hell Dean had to feel, with nowhere near enough sleep. He knew better than to try and drag anything out of Dean. He just didn’t want him to collapse, didn’t want it to get to that point before he figured out what the hell to do for his brother.
“Down comforters,” Sam said. “All the rooms have them. Gotta love that. Might wanna take a couple.”
Dean smirked but didn’t say anything.
They ate in the bar area with candlelight flickering off the mirrored walls. Dean ate the vegetables without complaining about it.
“Where to,” Sam said.
“Next. Where to? West into Nevada, or north into Idaho? We could cut over to Oregon, then up into Washington. We wanna stay out of Arizona. Down near Phoenix is the Palo Verde nuclear plant, and since it’s the biggest one in the country...that’s the one we might really have to worry about.”
“Dude,” Sam said. “Weigh in.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dean said, keeping his eyes on his plate. “There’s nothing out there. Right now we’re just touring all these places.”
“I thought you agreed maybe we should just keep checking, just in case,” Sam said. He heard the faint cajoling tone in his own voice and wanted to kick himself. But the sound of Dean’s voice had become one of the most important things in his life, suddenly, and whether Dean was good at it or not, or wanted to or not, he needed Dean to talk.
“And you were talking about just picking a place and settling down,” Dean said. “We should. No point spending the rest of our lives wandering around trying to figure out what the hell happened. No point watching everything collapse.”
“Pie,” Sam said.
Dean finally looked up at him, albeit blearily. “What?”
“There was pie in the freezer. I’m gonna heat some water and make some coffee, and we’re gonna have pie. Okay?”
Dean stared at him like he was going to say something, but instead he just nodded.
Sam didn’t shove the beds together. He decided to give Dean a little space; if he could convince Dean that he was feeling better and not so clingy, Dean’d calm down too.
He laid in bed reading by flashlight and tried to ignore the utter silence that should never have existed in a hotel even in the most off of off seasons. Dean was in the bed closest to the door, turned away from him. Sam glanced over every so often to note how damn tense his back and shoulders looked.
The beds were ridiculously comfortable. At least there was that.
He flipped the flashlight off and rolled onto his back, listening for the sound of Dean’s breathing. He knew Dean wasn’t asleep. He waited, trying to relax but not wanting to drop off.
Twenty minutes passed before Dean sat up suddenly and almost silently. He was still for a long moment, then got up and headed into the bathroom and closed the door. Sam rearranged his pillows and folded his hands behind his head. He realized he had no idea what time it was, but his internal chronometer said it had to be close to midnight.
He heard water run – not much water pressure left, but enough to make it possible to wash up – and then silence for several minutes. It was enough to make Sam begin to tense up. Then Dean came out, feet hunter-soft on the thick carpeting, and sat on the edge of his own bed. Sam watched his back. There was so little light that even with his dark-adapted eyes, it took him a couple of minutes to realize Dean was shaking.
Instead of saying anything to him, like he usually would have, he got up. He came around his own bed and got into Dean’s, and looped his arms around Dean from behind. He nearly startled at how cold Dean felt to the touch.
Dean tried to elbow him away. “Sam, what the fuck – “ The growl of it was lost in a quaver.
“Whatever did this,” Sam said, “it’s already happened. It’s over, and there was nothing we could have done about it.”
Somehow, somehow, that hit home. He felt Dean relax fractionally. It was just the right thing to say. Maybe the only thing to say. Sam had almost been using it as a kind of mantra to calm himself. It didn’t sound like much out loud, but it still had impact. This was not some test they had failed, there was no harbinger they’d missed. A change had come and gone without asking that they battle to slow or correct it. Like death, it was not good or evil; it simply was.
Dean didn’t speak. Sam hadn’t expected him to.
Sam hauled him backwards and over –
(Jesus, he hated it when Sam tossed him around, it wasn’t funny, the little shit)
– and flipped the down comforter over the both of them. Dean made an impatient sound and rolled away, putting his back to Sam. He didn’t make any attempt to get up, though.
“You don’t get some sleep, and we do run into something, you’re gonna make me save your ass. Again.”
Dean didn’t respond. But he was still trembling. Sam was afraid he was going into shock.
He rolled into Dean, folding around him from behind, tucking his knees behind Dean’s and bending until they were truly spooned, Sam’s broad chest against Dean’s equally broad back. He threw one arm over Dean’s ribs until he could flatten one hand over his heart, stretching the other arm over his head. He tucked his face alongside Dean’s, echo of years long gone, shared beds and cold cabins and nightmares that pulled-up covers wouldn’t cure. Dean didn’t jerk away or settle in, just put up with it.
Sam waited for a long moment, listening to the tremble in Dean’s breathing and trying not to let it start up in his own. The silence around them was nearly overwhelming.
The rest of what it was about finally occurred to Sam.
“So if it’s over,” he said softly, “and we’re all that’s left, then if one of us was gonna disappear, we’d already be gone. I won’t vanish while you’re asleep.”
Dean’s voice was low and hollow. “You don’t know.”
Everything felt so heavy, suddenly; the air, the idea of a world without people, the idea of going on. “Then I guess I’ll just have to hold on,” Sam said.
The quiet rushed back in again like water after someone cannonballed in. It was the utter lack of distant laughter or arguing, of TVs turned up a little too loud, of the clanking of cookware and the hum of engines. Babies wailing, car alarms, coughing, the things anyone would have sworn they’d never miss. With the silence came the pressure of waiting for something to break it, and none of the things Sam imagined capable of doing that were good.
“My dumbest theory,” Sam said softly, “is that particle accelerator that was started up back in May, in Switzerland. It had like a couple thousand scientists working on it from thirty countries or something. It’s several miles wide and it’s underground, and they were shooting proton beams at each other to try and get new or theorized particles to show up. I mean, there’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t remember most of it, it was just some article I read. I never liked physics that much. It’s got these massive superconducting magnets that can hold enough energy to equal...I don’t remember. Tons of TNT. And by trying to find these particles – “
“It’s the thing where they thought it might cause black holes,” Dean said. He was still shivering, but his voice was low and jeering. “Yeah, I remember this.”
“Right,” Sam said. “But then a lot of people said there wasn’t enough energy from this thing to do that, and if it was gonna happen, Earth would’ve been screwed a long time ago with all the particles it gets hit with from space anyway. Or the particles that are created could start some kind of runaway fusion process, or could make some kind of hole between our universe and another. It wasn’t worded like that, but it was something like that. Open us up to another form of space.”
“Because we’re totally capable of building a machine that can do that,” Dean said.
Sam grinned, knowing Dean could feel it.
“So everybody fell off into a gaping hole in space?” Dean said. “Why don’t you just go ahead and say that the world is flat, and the dragon got them? It’s just, you know, a modern version of the same thing.”
“People like to stick with what they know,” Sam said, then realized he’d used the present tense again. As true as it was, there were only two people left that he knew of that could stick to anything.
Dean was quiet for a moment, but he seemed to settle a little more. He was already warmer. “So remind me what the whole stupid collider was for,” he said.
“Well, it kind of starts with trying to find the Grand Unified Theory,” Sam said.
He talked about what he knew, and supposed, and flat out made up until Dean fell asleep on him.
When Sam awoke just after dawn, his arm was Dean’s pillow and Dean had a handful of the t-shirt Sam had worn to bed.
“This is shit.”
Dean had his forehead leaning against the counter in the kitchen, nearly draped over it as he slumped on a stool. He was tapping one finger against one of the Hilton’s fancy coffee mugs.
“It’s that or nothing,” Sam said from his post at the camp stove.
“There’s gotta be a way to make perc coffee not taste like shit,” Dean said. “Gonna try that French press.”
“That’s pretty fru-fru,” Sam said. “Not sure you can handle it.”
Dean made an mmmph sound that had a suggestion of insult to it.
They were having cheeseburgers for breakfast. Dean had asked for medium rare and Sam had informed him that still partly frozen or not, all meat was getting cooked all to hell. All water got boiled and everything else got cooked. Still, they were cheeseburgers, and Sam had been determined to make that happen because it would cheer Dean a little.
They were not talking about the previous night. Sam had already decided to get Dean good and goddamn drunk later on that night and try to get him to pass out. Given the choice between that and cuddling, Sam was fairly certain he knew which Dean would choose.
He was mildly troubled by the hint of disappointment he felt over that.
“Let’s go to the Grand Canyon,” Dean said.
“Wow, random,” Sam said, his back to Dean, slicing cheddar on a cutting board.
“No tourists,” Dean said, bracing himself up on his elbows and staring down into his coffee with distaste. “Always wanted to see it. We don’t have to hike down in or anything, I just...I wanna see it. It’s cool.”
Dean didn’t sound much like himself when he said things like that, although Sam knew without a doubt he was more himself than ever when he did. He had talked about going places before, when it had become apparent that Sam was the focal point of something bigger than they’d ever thought, when Dean had decided to cut and run with Sam to try and avoid all of it because it was all too likely they were going to lose each other otherwise. This time it would be something tangible to look forward to, because they weren’t hunting and might never again. Their world had been so, so far from normal, but it had still all been interconnected.
All the same, he found himself opening his mouth to voice what was keeping him sane: facts and figures and warnings. “Arizona’s got –“
“It’s way, way south of there,” Dean said, cutting him off. “It’s outside Phoenix, right? C’mon, we won’t be anywhere near it. You and your big nuclear plant obsession.”
Sam wanted to get impatient with him, but found himself hearing Dean say you don’t know in that small, worried voice from the night before, and he couldn’t. He settled for shrugging. “Fine. We have the Geiger counters anyway. Plenty of places to check between here and there, too. What do you want, on this? The regular?” He gestured vaguely toward the stove.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “No point changing the recipe now.”
“They have actual Thousand Island,” Sam said.
“It’s not the same,” Dean said. “Dude, seriously.”
Sam mixed ketchup and mayonnaise together until it amounted to Dean’s idea of ‘special sauce’.
“No fries,” Dean said when Sam brought him his burger. His tone was a mock lamentation.
“It hurts me too, Dean,” Sam said. He sliced tomatoes for his own burger, sticking with ketchup and mustard. “We packing up today, then?”
“No reason to hang around,” Dean said with his mouth full.
Sam spray painted dates and the coordinates to Bobby’s house on the windows of the hotel, then on several signs and a long stretch of sidewalk. He wasn’t sure if he should keep counting, anymore. It wasn’t doing him much good.
They stopped briefly in Provo to look around. They both began to wonder, without saying so aloud, how many cities and towns they would be able to stand to drive through and see buildings standing empty with sale signs in the windows and no one left to give a damn about it. The thinnest crust of normalcy coated the surface with nothing left to prop it up.
After that they split east from Interstate 15 onto the 6, southeast past Sky View and Soldier Summit, down through Price and then veering slightly southwest on the 10. They made it into Huntington before Dean started rubbing at one temple irritably.
“Headache?” Sam said.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Gimme some Advil.”
“Want me to drive?”
By the time they made it to Fremont Junction where the 10 stopped and forced them to pick up the 70 for a little while before they could continue south on the 72, Dean was miserable and pretending not to be. He ached all over, and the Advil did little more than take the edge off. His stomach was fine, so he knew it wasn’t a case of Sam accidentally killing him with a cheeseburger.
Sam glanced up from one of the maps he’d picked up in Provo to look at him, and it became a hard stare. “Dude, pull over.”
“No,” Dean said. “I’m fine.”
“You’re sweating,” Sam said, voice as hard as the stare. “You’re getting sick, aren’t you. Jesus, did you pick up the flu?”
“What, you mean everybody managed to leave their goddamn germs behind, too?” Dean passed a hand over his forehead and then wiped it on his jeans, scowling. “Figures. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s a big goddamn deal,” Sam said, shoving the map down. “You don’t get to survive the fucking apocalypse and then die of the flu.”
“Hey, don’t go all alarmist on me,” Dean said.
“Sam – “
“Goddamnit Dean, pull over!”
Dean hit the brakes and came to a hard stop in the middle of the road. “Pulling over’s for when other cars need to get by,” Dean said, eyes still forward. “You see anybody we gotta be polite for, Sammy?”
Sam looked at Dean’s pale, damp face and felt a seed of panic. “Get in the back and lie down,” he said. “Please. We’re gonna get you somewhere you can rest and get over this. Come on.” He got out of the car, scuffing asphalt beneath his boots, holding on to the small physical realities again to ground himself. The smell of air holding the promise of rain, the warmth of the hood’s metal, the sight of a double yellow line disappearing beneath the car. Dean got out and watched him, still trying to look affronted.
“I’m not kidding around,” Sam said. “I can’t remember the last time you were sick, you know? Aside from alcohol poisoning, I mean. So you have to really be sick, and I’m already scared out of my fuckin’ mind as it is, so we’re gonna hole up somewhere until you’re better.”
Dean regarded him with mild surprise, then passed Sam to go around the front of the car and get into the passenger side. “I just need a little more sleep,” he said with a quirk to his brows and mouth that suggested Sam was losing his mind. He wasn’t willing to do much more than that, though, which spoke volumes.
He was asleep less than ten minutes after Sam got them back on the road.
The closest town was Loa (Loa, for Christ’s sake, Sam thought, how funny is that) and there was one hotel, a Best Western. It was a small farming town, surrounded on all sides by fields, insular and feeling nearly cut off, with or without people.
He shook Dean awake and felt his knees begin to weaken a little when Dean didn’t even attempt to shake off the grip he had on Dean’s jacket. He remembered Dean getting ready to try and kick his ass when he tried to steady him in that damn preacher’s tent in Nebraska after he’d had a heart attack.
The doors still used standard keys rather than key cards, which made it easier. Dean shrugged his jacket off and sat down on one of the beds with a yawn. “‘s’no big deal, just tired,” he said, then curled sideways and tucked himself all the way onto the bed with his back to Sam.
Sam took Dean’s boots off and tucked the comforter up around him, stilling the urge to check his pulse. Antibiotics weren’t going to do anything for a viral infection; soup and juice and several days in bed were all that were going to help.
He searched the hotel. So much of it was aged but so carefully pristine that it was obvious business had not been booming there for awhile. He checked the kitchen. Typical stuff, but more frozen and canned stuff than the bigger hotels usually had. He found a couple kinds of soup and left them out on the counters. There were bottled juices in the storeroom but no ice left to go with them. He went out to the car and unloaded their stuff, including the med supplies he’d been hoarding. Cough syrup and Vick’s and a thermometer came out first.
Dean had been asleep for a couple of hours the first time Sam woke him and forced juice on him.
“Dude, I don’t have a concussion,” Dean said, sounding groggy and congested. “Leave me alone, already.”
“Shut up and drink the goddamn juice,” Sam said. “You wanna get dehydrated? ‘Cause that’ll really help.”
“It’s warm. Gross.”
“Just drink it.”
Dean did as he was told to get Sam out of his hair, then rolled himself into the comforter and went back to sleep.
Sam decided it wasn’t worth the risk to leave Dean there alone long enough to go looking for a generator so they could have ice and hot water. He could heat enough water on the camp stove to give them something to wash up with. The rest, they’d just have to tolerate for a little while.
He paced for awhile and looked out the windows, listening to the silence and thinking about how huge it was, that it was a much bigger sound than all the restless cacophony he was so used to. He could really hear himself think, and for once he didn’t want to. He listened to Dean breathe for several minutes, pinpointing the beginnings of some kind of upper respiratory infection.
He went down to the lobby and flipped through the newspapers, ignoring the national ones since they were exactly the same ones he’d already read with Dean. There would be no new ones. He grabbed a couple of local ones instead, a couple of travel brochures, and found a couple of dog-eared novels behind the counter. There was an older John Grisham novel he’d liked but hadn’t read in years, and Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Ways to pass the time.
He settled on the empty bed and read for awhile, then checked his watch and went down to the kitchen to heat up soup and get more juice. He put them on the nightstand by Dean’s bed and shook him awake. Dean groaned in aggravation but finally opened his eyes.
“You have to keep liquids in you,” Sam said. “C’mon, there’s chicken noodle soup, and crackers. Just sit up and you can eat it in bed.”
Dean snuffled and got himself upright enough so that Sam could place a batch of pillows behind him to prop him up comfortably. He ate the soup without comment and drank enough juice to get some cold medicine in him, but rejected the crackers and all attempts to take his temperature. He got up and used the bathroom before he rolled back onto the bed, hiding his head in the covers.
Only partly satisfied, Sam went down to scrounge something for himself to eat. He read until it got dark, then gave up and laid in his own bed until sleep came.
“Goddamnit, you eat this, or I’ll shove it down you,” Sam said.
Toast and tea weren’t Dean’s favorites to begin with, and even less so when all he wanted to do was sleep.
“And the orange, too. C’mon, Dean.”
Dean made a face and didn’t bother opening his eyes, but he took a bite of toast. The tea was just right, so he took a couple of gulps of it to help get the bread past the dry scratchiness in his throat. “Did you put honey in it?” he rasped. “You’re a good nursemaid.”
“Eat as much as you can, and then have some Tylenol or something, and you can go back to sleep for awhile,” Sam said.
Dean finished the tea and ate half the orange, then told Sam to go screw himself and went back to sleep.
Sam read and wandered the hotel, watching a light rain begin to darken the pavement outside. Better that than wringing his hands. Jess had been sick, once, just the once, and she had been so easy to take care of even though he hadn’t known quite what to do anyway, since it wasn’t something he could sew together or bandage. Wounds of all shapes and sizes, yeah, broken bones and dislocated joints, blood all over the place, fine. Those were things he really knew how to deal with. The unseen hurts, those he could talk out or sympathize with. But sickness? His father had never been down with the flu, and if Dean had ever been sick before, shit, it would have had to be while Sam was away at college, because Sam didn’t remember it. Maybe an occasional cold; every kid had the sniffles on and off. But nothing more than that. Maybe getting poked and stabbed and slashed and bitten on a regular basis had caused the Winchesters to have immune systems of steel. Sam’d had a few colds in his life, nothing major.
They were just really stressed out, and it had lowered their resistance, that was all. World-endings tended to do that.
How’d the old adage go? Starve a cold, feed a fever? What the hell did that even mean?
He made more soup and went back upstairs and forced it on Dean, who was just as communicative as he’d been before. But he didn’t smack Sam for feeling his forehead that time, or bringing him a pot of hot water with a washcloth and towel.
“m’sorry, Sammy,” Dean said hoarsely.
“For what, being a walking petri dish?” Sam said.
Dean looked as if he was going to say something more, but he settled for, “Yeah.”
He took a few Tylenol and finished a bottle of juice, then went back to sleep. Sam laid on the bed next to him and tried not to loom or check his breathing compulsively or sprinkle holy water.
Sam only checked him five or six times during the night. Maybe seven, tops. Dean wheezed a little and made an occasional hacking noise, and Sam tried not to panic.
When Dean rolled over the next morning with red eyes and nose and splotchy face and extra stubble, clumsily wiping a little drool off his chin, he was a gorgeous and amazing wonder of nature to Sam’s eyes all the same.
“You look like crap,” Dean said in a voice that sounded like a parody of himself.
Sam laughed. “I brought you tea and juice,” he said.
“Joy.” Dean got up and meandered to the bathroom. Behind the closed door, he had a full blown coughing attack, and Sam rattled the knob.
“Are you okay?”
After a moment, Dean said, “I’m trying to poke a lung back down. Let me die in peace, Sam.”
Sam leaned his head against the door for a moment, then went downstairs to make yet more soup.
When he came back, Dean had drained the tea and ignored the juice and was sitting propped up in bed.
“You awake for awhile?” Sam said.
“I feel a little better,” Dean said with a snuffle. “I think it’s starting to break up. Which is really, really gross, but makes it easier to breathe.” He waved a roll of toilet paper at Sam. “Snot city.”
Sam handed him a mug of soup. Dean sipped at it without complaint. “I can probably find you some Kleenex.”
Dean shook his head. “The stuff they make for your ass is usually softer than the stuff they make for your face. Go figure.” He coughed and blew his nose.
Sam brought the garbage can out of the bathroom for Dean to toss all his used toilet paper into. Dean leaned back into his pillows again, eyes closed for a moment. Then he opened them and squinted at Sam. “You’re freaking out,” he said.
“No,” Sam said. “No, no.” He looked around the room for a moment, listened to the silence, then said, “Yeah, pretty much.”
Dean left it alone, which amazed Sam.
“This is really boring,” Dean said. “I can’t lie here all day and do nothing but sleep.”
Sam just looked at him incredulously. “Boring?”
“Seriously, I’m gonna die of boredom if there’s nothing to do,” Dean said. “No TV, no car mags, nothing. Find me some comic books or something.”
Sam sighed. “I don’t wanna leave you here alone, okay? And you can’t come with. So...I can check all the rooms, someone must have left something interesting behind.”
“We have the radios,” Dean said. “They’ve got a five mile radius. Whole damn town’s not even five miles.” He looked up at Sam with brows raised, eyes round and wide and faintly pleading. “Sammy.”
Sam looked at the ceiling. “Oh, my God. Fine. Let me at least check the rooms first, okay? If there’s nothing here, then I’ll go out and try and find something.”
“I don’t want Good Housekeeping, or any of that other shit,” Dean said, sliding down further in the bed. “If it comes to that? At least bring me, like, tabloids.”
“What, no coloring books?” Sam said, heading for the door. “No My Little Pony?”
“Keep your kinky little fantasies to yourself, Sam,” Dean said.
Sam closed the door and went down to the lobby to pick up all the keys. He went room to room, and by the third room, began to feel like he was looting from the dead. He knew better – or at least he hoped he did – but it didn’t help him. It was weird, going through people’s things, even if they weren’t coming back for them. There were books and clothes, toiletries, all the standards for people traveling through.
He looked away from those and backed out of the room so fast that he nearly tripped and fell into the hallway.
A couple of laptops, paperbacks from the bestseller list that had been at the checkout counters of every store Sam had been in in the last couple of months. National Geographic, People, local newspapers. He picked up one of each and found that one local newspaper was called the Richfield Reaper. Dean was going to love that.
Somewhere on the third floor, he hit paydirt: a portable DVD player. He actually said a silent thank you to the ceiling for that one. It came with both seasons of Dead Like Me and seasons three and four of the original CSI. He checked the kind of batteries it needed and went out to the car for a couple of sets, then went back to the room and plopped all of it on the bed.
Dean eyed him, then shuffled through Sam’s spoils. “Not bad,” he said. “You’re a pretty good looter, Sam.”
“Shut up and watch,” Sam said. “You want any other shows, we’ll have to wait until we’re back on the road. Hit a Blockbuster or something.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, reading the back of the Dead Like Me box. “Man, I love this show. I haven’t seen most of the episodes. Most of the places we’ve stayed didn’t have cable, so I lost track. All we need is snacks, and we’re set.” He glanced up at Sam. “You wanna watch with me?”
“Um...well, yeah,” Sam said, trying not to be taken aback by the invitation.
The tiny gift shop downstairs had chips and candy and popcorn, and Sam figured out how to use the camp stove to pop it after squeezing it out of the microwave bags and covering the pot he used. The pop was room temp, but Dean said it felt better on his throat that way anyway. They made it most of the way through season one of Dead Like Me before Dean fell asleep.
Sam shut the player off and settled in to read a couple of old issues of National Geographic before he dropped off, too.
It was getting dark when he awoke again, and he rubbed his hands over his face to try and get bearings. He got up and nudged Dean. “Hey, you want soup?”
Dean took a moment to answer with a voice that was thick with phlegm. “I hate soup. No more soup. Doritoes.”
Sam sighed and gave in. They ate Doritoes and watched CSI.
After washing up, Dean wandered around the hotel for awhile, then gave it up after another coughing fit hit him. He sat in the dining area with Sam, played Bullshit using a pack of cards from the gift shop, and got high on cold medicine.
“Best vacation we’ve ever had,” Dean said. Sam had cold-brewed some iced tea and found a few lemons and Dean couldn’t get enough of it even without ice.
“You mean except for the being sick part and the no chicks part?” Sam said, cutting the deck.
Dean made an oh well face. “Well, yeah. Let’s go get movies or something.”
“You feel up to going out?” Sam said.
“I feel up to not trusting you to pick any good movies,” Dean said.
There wasn’t a big chain store like a Blockbuster, but there was a little rental place that had both videos and DVDs, the vast majority of which didn’t exceed PG-13.
“You couldn’t get me over the border into Arizona before we stopped?” Dean said. “Really? We’re stuck in Utah where an awful lot of morally upstanding people just happened to live?”
“I’m sorry there’s no porn, okay?” Sam said.
“Oh, it’s here somewhere,” Dean said. “For that, now I get real porn.”
“Have fun picking it out when you find it,” Sam said. “Get your own DVD player, ‘cause I’m not watching it with you.”
“It’s not like I don’t already know what a pervert you are,” Dean said, picking up a copy of The Matrix.
“I’m not the one who made a habit of freezing up the laptop with all the porn sites,” Sam said. “And put that down, you can’t make me watch that again.”
“Hey, that was all perfectly normal stuff,” Dean said. “You’re so secretive about everything that I just know you’ve got creepy, dark fantasy stuff running around that huge brain of yours. I’ll bet you like whips and chains and leather and shit.”
“You really wanna go there?” Sam said. “Really? Here’s the part where I guess that you like to be tied up like most control freaks do.”
Dean looked at him incredulously. “Sam,” he said, “you kinky little bastard, how much thought have you put into that?”
Sam walked away.
“Avoidance,” Dean said. “How repressed. I’ll bet you’re a biter, too. Really oral.”
“Gonna spike your tea,” Sam said from around the corner.
Dean smirked so hard that it made his face hurt. “We don’t have to return anything we take,” he said. “No late fees, ever again.”
“You never returned them anyway,” Sam said from somewhere over in the comedy section.
“It always occurred to me, though,” Dean said.
Neither of them bothered to pretend they might sleep in separate beds that night.
They both liked and needed their space, and with Sam and his ability to completely take over a bed, that had been a literal necessity since he’d been about fifteen. But they were both shaken badly enough that the idea of being out of contact while asleep was worse than losing the ability to stretch out. That was solved mainly by putting beds together, which maintained a minor illusion of room. The reality of it was that Sam obliterated the idea by twining his insanely long arms over and under and around, and tangling legs, and generally draping himself over Dean. It was a flashback to all those times when it had made perfect sense for them to share a bed; none of it was new. The only thing that was new was that where before it had been an imposition and an annoyance...now it was needed.
“So let’s go,” Dean said.
Sam eyed him from the bed, where he was still mostly asleep. As quickly as Dean had succumbed to whatever virus had felled him, he’d bounced back from it just as quickly. He was still sniffling and coughing, but he was also annoyingly restless.
Sam did not want to admit that it had been okay to stay in one place for several days. As much as he tried to avoid fooling himself, he still couldn’t help occasionally pretending that it was nothing more than a layover, that the world would be back any moment, and they’d just been taking it easy for awhile. Because they could. Getting back out there meant more proof of the opposite, right in their faces.
“You sure you’re up to that?” Sam said.
Dean snorted, which, hilariously, caused a coughing fit. Sam felt mildly justified, then guilty over it.
“Hate all this sitting around,” Dean said. “And I’m never eating soup again in this lifetime.”
Sam sighed, got up, and went to pack.
Loading the car made them both realize that they were packing more in the way of ‘regular’ stuff than they ever had in their lives. They leaned against the car and looked at the hotel from the outside for a minute or so, watching pigeons, listening to the silence. Dean was listening to see if anything human would break it. Sam simply wanted it to stop.
“We can take the 12 south,” Sam said finally. He flipped a brochure open all the way and turned it in his hands to find the pen marks he’d made along the map inside. “Then the 89 from there, until we get to Jacob Lake, and get on the 67. That eventually puts us at the north rim of the canyon. I was reading all the brochures and stuff from the lobby while you were sleeping, and the north rim looks really cool. It’s higher than the south rim, too.”
Dean nodded to indicate he was listening, but didn’t look at him or comment.
Listening to the car’s engine was a relief. It seemed to Sam like they should talk, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything.
There was a hell of a lot of forest to get through, on the 67; three out of the five hours it took to get down to the north rim was nothing but trees. The Kaibab National Forest was alpine and not as dense as Sam had thought it would be, because the moment anyone said alpine forest he immediately thought of trees too close together to pass through, and maybe people in lederhosen running around carrying buckets of milk. Little tourist traps dotted what had come to be known as the Grand Canyon Highway, promising amazing deals and must-haves and last chance souvenirs. They slowed and then stopped at one point to let a group of mule deer cross the road. It seemed surreal even if they knew on a rational level that it happened every damn day, humans or no humans. Everything seemed new or odd or otherwise out of place, with the loss of their entire species whistling in the background constantly and tinting the view.
Near the end of highway 67 was the Grand Canyon Lodge, overlooking Bright Angel Canyon. They turned off at the top of the parking lot, and Sam picked up a tour pamphlet from the little log shelter showing a huge map of the area and advertising local things for tourists. He eyed it for a moment, focusing on it carefully and not thinking ahead, one thing at a time. He didn’t consciously realize that Dean hadn’t come to join him, not until he glanced at his watch to check the time
(it’s a manmade concept anyway, doesn’t matter anymore)
and tried to calculate how long they had until sunset. It would be good to see the sunset over the canyon, really good, probably one of the most gorgeous things he’d ever see in his life, and then maybe they could just stay in the lodge for the night. Head out on some of the trails in the morning, really see the sights, really feel the incredibly huge emptiness and let the goddamn constant silence press in on them.
He glanced up to look at Dean, needing to center himself again. Dean had both hands planted on the hood of the car, eyes closed, as pale as the day Sam had first realized he was sick.
Sam was there in just a few long strides, standing next to Dean with hands in midair like he meant to touch but knew better. “You sick? Elevation, maybe?”
Dean shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just a little tired.”
Sam leaned in like they might share a secret, like he might block anyone else from hearing. “Say it,” he said. “Just say it. If you say it out loud, it’s not as bad. Okay?”
“We’re the last people who’re ever gonna see it,” Dean said, the words erupting with the speed and intensity of someone getting the hard part over with. “See anything.”
“I know,” Sam said.
“It was my idea to come here,” Dean said in the same tone, letting it begin to slide into a snarl. “This’s...it’s fuckin’ stupid.”
“We don’t have to be here,” Sam said. “We’re in no hurry.”
Dean was breathing slow and deep through his nose, eyes clamped tight, looking like he was trying to keep from having a panic attack. Sam dropped his hands to the hood alongside Dean’s, heat and dust under his palms, two of the very last hands left.
“Whatever you wanna do, we’ll do it,” Sam said. “We can come back in a week, or next spring, or never. We can turn around right now. We’re tired. Let’s crash somewhere overnight and pick another direction.”
He knew Dean wouldn’t have been so outwardly emotional if he hadn’t been so damn sick so recently. He had a sense of dread when he thought about looking out across something that would so graphically demonstrate how damn small they were. There was a sense of the numinous about it, of the sheer space and the idea of it, of maybe looking out and finding themselves witnessing one of the most beautiful things the planet had to offer, evidence of the geological time that lay behind and ahead, now and forever more uncounted by homo sapiens.
They stood there for several minutes, frozen in place. Then Dean startled Sam by slamming his hands down on the hood before he turned away.
Sam leaned one hip against the car and waited.
Dean stared into the middle distance for another minute or so, then walked around and got into the passenger side.
Sam kept his face impassive as he got in and turned the car around. He headed right back the way they’d come.
Dean was asleep long before they hit the five mile mark, headed north on the North Rim Parkway.
Sam picked up the 89 at Jacob Lake again and then all the way up to Fredonia. Dean hadn’t stirred. He debated stopping there, but he wanted to get them further west and couldn’t say why. Maybe to make it impossible to change their minds and turn around. He took the 389 headed southwest and stayed on it as it bent around and began to ascend north again.
It was just beginning to head toward twilight by then, or he never would have seen it.
At first he thought he was seeing a reflection from the setting sun, peeling across the desert and slamming off the windows of some building off to his left as the 389 crossed the 5 into Colorado City. He had the map next to him on the seat, the edges just brushing Dean’s thigh, Arizona laid out for quick reference and telling him he was close to the Utah border again. He debated pulling over for a closer look at the map but didn’t want to wake Dean, not until they got into Colorado City and found somewhere to stay for the night.
He glanced off to the left again, and the amazement caused him to let the car drift to the right and nearly onto the shoulder.
He slowed, careful not to overcorrect. He looked at the map again, picking it up and holding it closer to his face. The Colorado City Municipal Airport was lit up as if waiting for flights to pick up again at any moment.
When he took the Central Street exit, there was a traffic light glowing green above his head. The entire place still had power.
He stayed on North Central Street until he passed Township Avenue and saw a sign for a bed and breakfast. The place didn’t seem to have anywhere to stay, otherwise, and he was loathe to stay in a random house yet with stuff belonging to people who likely hadn’t wanted to leave. He sure as hell didn’t want to go much further, either, and risk losing the artificial light.
He stopped in front of a gas station and put the car in park. Then he reached over and very gently snaked an arm behind Dean’s shoulders, pulling him in and meeting him halfway until he could rest his head alongside his brother’s.
Dean didn’t startle awake, just immediately tried to right himself. “Sam?”
“Look,” Sam said. “Don’t say anything, just look.”
Dean blinked out the windshield at the growing dark that was being pushed back by streetlights and the fluorescent glow from inside the nearest businesses. He quit trying to right himself. “Dude.”
“Yeah,” Sam said.
Dean leaned against Sam for another moment before he braced a hand against the seat again, but he rubbed his forehead on Sam’s shoulder before he straightened and pulled away. “Real food,” he said. “Ice, and hot water, and....I’m gonna stay in the shower for an hour.”
Sam looked at him a glance at a time, trying to ignore the accidental affection, trying to gauge his mood and whether he was feeling any better.
“How the hell is this possible?” Dean said. “Seriously, all the power stations would have to be down by now, there’s nobody feeding ‘em. It’s been...” he frowned.
“Two weeks, today,” Sam said. “Yeah, you’re right. This shouldn’t be possible. So something else is running it besides a coal-fired station.”
“You’re not gonna have one of your nuclear freakouts, are you?” Dean said, casting him a sidelong glance before he began rubbing his eyes.
“They’ve begun to run down by now, too,” Sam said. “They’ve gone into emergency shutdown mode, or begun to melt, or whatever the hell they’re gonna do. This isn’t nuclear.”
“Say it like Bush used to say it,” Dean said. “New-cue-lear.”
“Whatever makes you happy, Dean,” Sam said, then put the car back in gear and turned down Township. “Let’s figure the whole thing out some other time. After food.”
It turned out to be a little four-room, two story home, over furnished and a little too ‘puffy’, as Dean put it. Like maybe they were waiting for Little Miss Muffet to come curd and whey her way through there. He didn’t actually care, though. Four poster beds and hot water and pancake mix in the pantry, and bacon in the freezer. Sam watched him look through the available food and knew without asking that Dean was gravitating toward those particular things.
“Hey,” Sam said. “You go jump in the shower, and I’ll figure this out down here. I am seriously craving bacon, how about that?”
Dean grinned at him. “Man after my own heart,” he said with a quick tilt of his head.
Sam stared at the space Dean had been in, realizing that the more settled he was, the more unsettled Dean was. At least they had spaced their reactions out so that one was always catching the other. He wasn’t accustomed to a Dean that was that off kilter, but he could handle it. He wanted to handle it.
When Dean came back down with wet and spiky hair, there were also eggs, because Sam had eyed them and smelled them after cracking them and determined that since they’d been refrigerated the whole time, and weren’t much past date, they were still fine. They huddled at the kitchen table and ate, genuinely enjoying it, not wolfing it to get themselves somewhere else. The refrigerator kicked on, a perfectly normal sound, background hum to keep the quiet from creeping back in.
When they’d finished, Dean leaned his head into one hand. “Awesome,” he said.
“Which room do you want?” Sam said, beginning to gather the dishes. He glanced up as he said it, or he wouldn’t have caught the tiny flash of panic in Dean’s eyes; it was as much of a shock as glancing out the windshield and finding electric lights. “I mean, there’s gotta be one we can stay in that isn’t completely girly, right?” Not too heavy on the we, careful to keep from stumbling any further.
Dean cleared his throat. “Yeah, right,” he said. “There’s gotta be one a little less floral than the others. I think the one across the hall from the upstairs bathroom looked okay.”
“Okay,” Sam said. “I’ll get the rest of our stuff out of the car, and...I don’t know, what do you want to watch?”
“We got the whole A-Team series,” Dean said.
Sam laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”
There was no wireless. Sam put the laptop away after checking. He doubted there were many servers left running in the US except whatever was still up locally.
Dean fell asleep somewhere around the seventh or eighth time BA started berating Murdock over being a crazy fool with all his jibber-jabber. Sam left the DVD running and pored over their maps, trying to figure out what power source he could thank for the reprieve. He gave up after awhile and turned the volume down just far enough to be background noise, letting it keep running, setting it to loop. He left the lights on when he dropped off.
They decided to see how far west the power went.
Dean seemed worlds better and happy to be driving again, so Sam left it at that.
“Still wanna find somewhere to winter out this way?” Dean said.
“Yeah, if we’re talking about a reservoir far enough away from a city to keep from burning when it does,” Sam said, still poking at the maps from the passenger seat. “Somewhere where we don’t have to worry about the pipes freezing.”
There was a Geiger counter and an EMF meter running in the backseat. For caution’s sake.
“You said central Cali,” Dean said. “I remember that. It’ll get cold, but not northeast-cold or midwest-cold. We can start looking now, I guess. Good a time as any. Before the end of October, anyway.”
It didn’t exactly sound like acceptance, but Sam could hear a sense of purpose in Dean’s voice all the same. They could plan and look forward and work toward...something. Something more than just surviving.
“How far to Vegas?” Dean said.
“You wanna go there?” Sam said.
Dean shrugged. “Something to do. Good place to look around, search all the corners. ‘Specially if the power is still on.”
Sam found himself mirroring the shrug. Dean was right; there were plenty of things to do there.
“Maybe stay there for the winter, if there’s a source that’s gonna keep the power going that long.”
“Can’t plan on that until we figure out what the source is,” Sam said.
“Sam, what the hell does it matter?”
Sam made an impatient noise. “Because I wanna know whether it’s gonna explode, Dean,” he said. “If we know where it’s coming from, then we’ll know how long it might last.”
“If it was part of the regular grid, it’d be long gone by now,” Dean said. “And hey, you’re the one who said there’s not a nuclear plant left that hasn’t gone into shutdown mode or whatever. You figure out whatever you want. We can spend the winter there. Hot water, Sam. Cheeseburgers.”
“You’re such an easy sell,” Sam said.
Dean rolled his eyes “Worse has been said about me.” He squinted at Sam. “By you.”
Sam shook his head and went back to the maps. “We don’t want to just depend on that,” he said softly. “We need to get ourselves set up somewhere we can be self-sustaining, before winter. We could get halfway through December and be stuck with the desert cold if the power suddenly dies. Yeah, there’s canned food and the camping stove, but how long do you wanna do that?”
Dean wrinkled his nose. “Not long. Okay, fine. Let’s keep checking the major cities, and we’ll pay really good attention to California when we get there. You map out all the reservoirs and we’ll plot out the best spot and figure out if it’s gonna be all generators all winter, or what. Stock back up on gas and supplies.”
Sam nodded even though he knew Dean wasn’t looking at him.
Vegas was lit up just as high as if people were still filling every nook and cranny.
They chose the Bellagio because it was on the Strip and the suites went for as much as $6000 a night. Or at least they had. Now they were free.
The floors were so huge that they afforded multiple ways out if something went wrong, even on one of the top floors where the villas were. Dean knew they were talking about fire when they said something, but they were still hunters at heart and evil could be so devastatingly patient. They would not let their guard down.
Access to the elevators that went all the way up to the top floors was by key only. They stayed the hell off the elevators.
“Would you look at this,” Dean said with enough reverence that Sam did, indeed, look at that. Opulence was not something either of them were accustomed to or really sought out. It was impractical and they never had the time. Even Sam couldn’t help thinking they deserved it, just a little, for surviving all they had, as a way of forgetting that they had been running scared and out of their element for two weeks.
They had picked one of the villas at random, and it turned out to be worth it to climb thirty-six flights of stairs. Two bedrooms, marble foyer, fireplace; crystal chandelier, entertainment system, full bar, steam shower. Sauna, private courtyard, pool and garden. Garden, on the top of a goddamn hotel.
The first thing Dean did was strip his clothes off and dive in the pool.
Sam watched with muted amusement.
“Dude, it’s heated,” Dean said the first time he came up for air. “This is so awesome.”
“Don’t drown,” Sam said. “I’m gonna check the ‘net and see if there are any servers left.”
“Fuckin’ spoilsport,” Dean yelled at his back.
Sam discovered quickly that there were plenty of servers still running, courtesy of whatever power source was still gifting them with at least enough power to run Vegas. And that was a fairly massive power draw. There was no evidence that anyone had been around since the last time he’d checked; even CNN was down. Google was still up, and when he did a search for the largest power sources in the southwestern US and came up with a few: a solar thermal plant in Nevada; the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona; wind farms; and finally, page 5 of the search afforded him a hydroelectric option: Hoover Dam.
“Oh, duh,” he said aloud. “Jesus.”
Hoover Dam, also known as Boulder Dam, is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, on the border between the U.S. states of Arizona and Nevada. When completed in 1935, it was both the world's largest electric power producing facility and the world's largest concrete structure. It was surpassed in both respects by the Grand Coulee Dam in 1945, but it remains within the world's top 40 hydroelectric generating stations.
The dam, located 30 miles (48 km) southeast of Las Vegas, is named after Herbert Hoover...
He felt like he should have known. But with so many other factors to consider since the beginning of it all, he realized it was no wonder that this hadn’t occurred to him. Hoover Dam could run by itself for at least a year if it had to; it barely needed maintenance, the damn thing was so efficient. It was the dam that was providing them with power. California and Arizona, too, and probably parts of Utah. They just hadn’t seen it sooner. Dean was right; they probably could spend the winter there, in insane luxury. It wasn’t a good idea, though, when sooner or later it would be over. It would be fun for awhile, but they’d grow bored and restless and need something to work on. Need their own real place. Plenty of places would be fitted to run on solar, and stay warm enough year ‘round...
Dean came inside and walked through, buck naked.
“Okay, no,” Sam said. “You just...Dean, goddamnit.”
“Don’t be jealous, Sam,” Dean said.
“Saw enough of it growing up,” Sam said, turning away.
Dean kept going, into the steam shower, and Sam heard him singing. He couldn’t make out what it was, exactly, but he suspected Zeppelin.
He was relieved to see Dean feeling better. Dean had to be relieved to feel good again.
“So, lemme get this straight,” Dean said.
They were both drunk by then. They both figured they kind of deserved it. It hadn’t stopped them from salting the doors and windows.
“It’s a dam, causing all this,” Dean said, sweeping one arm to encompass the room and probably all of Vegas.
“Yep,” Sam said. “You are damn straight, it’s a dam. A damn dam.”
This was especially funny, somehow.
“A damn dam, Sam,” Dean said, and then they were both laughing.
“To human ingenuity,” Sam said, raising a shot glass of tequila toward the picture windows that looked down onto the strip. It was really good stuff, Aha Toro, better than they were used to drinking.
“To humans,” Dean said.
“To humans,” Sam echoed. “Silly bastards.”
They drank to that. Then Dean flopped down on the bed (he was finally wearing boxers, and Sam was happy about that) and rolled around on the sheets like a cat.
“Silk sheets,” Dean said. “Oh, boy. This beats the goddamn Grand Canyon.”
Sam agreed but didn’t say so, because, well, his brain quit working and words were so hard.
Daylight woke Dean by degrees. And when the right degree had been reached, he noticed something else.
It seemed perfectly damn normal to wake up with one of Sam’s huge hands shoved up under the shirt he’d worn to bed, making a slow, gently repetitive trail from sternum to navel and back, skimming over his skin with the backs of his fingers.
It felt too good to slap Sam away and make fun of him.
Jesus, he was, after all, human, and it was just Sam. So it was no big deal to pretend to still be asleep. Sam likely wasn’t awake or aware.
It was going to be awesome when he woke up and had an attack over the whole thing. Dean was maybe a little flatter chested than Sam was used to. Or maybe not; Sam liked chicks, he knew that, had seen plenty of it, but who knew what else went on in that big head? Maybe Sam was bi for all he knew.
If it walked upright and had opposable thumbs, Dean liked it. He preferred chicks, sure, but he was not going to ignore the fact that there had been some guys he had not been completely turned off by. He’d never done anything, no, and good God it had been more out of fear of his father getting a hint of any of it than anything else, but he had had his moments. He had several gold medals in the Flirting Olympics and he wasn’t dumb enough to avoid using his own beauty to distract whoever needed it.
He then realized where his mind had wandered and immediately put it down to the fact that he and Sam were the only humans left.
He closed his eyes. He didn’t feel that hungover, but he had to be if he was doing so much bizarre thinking.
He felt Sam regain a little more consciousness, and with it, that huge hand became still and flat against his stomach.
“You gonna keep doing that, you might at least reach a little lower and really commit,” Dean said.
Sam rolled away so fast and gracefully that Dean barely felt him move.
When Sam began to stammer – lots of oh my God, Dean and sorry, sorry, don’t even know what I – Dean said, “Dude, chill. Not the first time you’ve felt me up in your sleep.”
Sam snapped his mouth shut in even greater horror and stared at Dean’s back, and then his face when Dean turned over to look at him. “What?”
“You’re all hands, Sam,” Dean said. “You always have been. And legs. Jesus, the only good thing about you going off to school was getting to sleep without somebody clinging all over me all the time.” He smirked. “Unless I planned it, anyway.”
Sam waved him off and sat on the edge of the bed, running his hands through his hair.
“You hungover?” Dean said.
“Uh...maybe a little,” Sam said.
Dean snorted. “Steam shower is awesome. I’m gonna...well, we’ve got bottled water at least. I’m gonna see if they have any Pedialyte.”
Sam started to ask, but then settled for hanging his head.
“Best way to get hydrated after clearing out a minibar,” Dean said. “I gotta teach you everything?”
“Yes,” Sam said, and headed for the bathroom as fast as he dared go.
Vegas was searched the same way every other city had been; by sections and with no real belief that they would find anyone else. The belief didn’t matter. They still did everything with care.
The Strip seemed as insanely bright in the daylight, too much neon, too many lights flashing and scrolling, all vying for attention.
Right into the void.
The emptiness of it was a shock, even though they’d known it would be that way. They took one drive through first, checking windows and balconies and doorways for glimpses of movement. Caesar’s Palace, Mandalay Bay, the MGM Grand. Thousands of yard of vertical glass reflecting the entire available world but devoid of life. The ghost had left the machine.
“Too many angles,” Dean said. “No way we’re splitting up, here.”
Sam agreed and did so in silence.
“Seems like, if there were demons loose, they’d be here,” Dean added. “Right? Here, Reno, Atlantic City, I don’t know. Somewhere they could enjoy a little time on earth after emptying it of...” He trailed off. “Nobody to possess, no way to manifest, unless they’re pretty high up the ladder. Azazel-level. He could manifest his own form.”
Sam didn’t comment. He didn’t want to have the conversation. Talking about Azazel always felt like sliding backwards, a little.
“No reason for them to be so quiet, if they’re here,” Dean said. “They’d come rub our noses in this, I know they would. Hell, I would.”
They just kept grasping for the familiar, even the worst of it.
“We’ve pretty much announced ourselves, if there’s anyone or anything left,” Sam said. “So it’s not like a little provoking would hurt. You wanna make some noise, see what comes out?”
Dean shrugged. “Plenty of places for us to hide, if we want to, if it goes bad,” he said.
They walked into Caesar’s Palace, into the casino, and stayed within sight of each other across the main floor. Dean walked along, touching everything, games and cards and chairs as he passed, tipping over a stack of chips left behind. Games had been in progress, from what they could see.
Sam wondered if they had all faded out, or just snapped off like lights. Had anyone felt what was happening, for even the briefest moment?
“Suppose it was everywhere, all at once?” Dean called from across the floor by the roulette tables. He was spinning one idly. “Or in a wave?”
Sam realized Dean was talking just to do it, because it wasn’t like him to wonder aloud. Not the way he was doing it. He didn’t need to fill a silence, because the slot machines were looping repetitive tunes that were meant to attract and harmonize.
It was eerie. Sam felt the emptiness of the place across his shoulders, on the back of his neck, in a pressure at his temples. Ghost town.
He met Dean’s eyes across the room, and they both headed for the doors at the same time.
They stood outside by the car, like kids huddling around a parent while trying to deal with the unfamiliar.
“This is nuts,” Dean said.
They circled the Strip, wandering outward, past more hotels and golf clubs and outlet malls. They saw a dog that looked like it had always been on its own. Birds. Nothing else; or at least nothing else on two legs.
They went back to the Strip, and Sam proceeded to spray paint coordinates and dates on signs and windows on a scale he hadn’t attempted anywhere else.
It occurred to Dean to try and help him, but he knew it was Sam’s thing, and he didn’t mind if Sam’s handwriting alone was being left everywhere. He thought about maybe printing out a flyer or something, leaving it on all the check in desks of the really big hotels, but he settled for watching Sam. It seemed good enough to Sam that Dean just simply stayed nearby.
They went back to the Bellagio and didn’t mind the climb to the top floor again. The exertion was good.
The amenities had begun to lose their charm, though. Maybe it was because something so huge had happened, maybe it was because they weren’t actually getting away with anything. Whatever the reason, they both knew that they didn’t want to stay in Vegas much longer. It was too much like a standing monument to humanity at its busiest and most frivolous.
Not the only monument, but a flashing neon epitaph all the same.
Sam sat silently out in the garden, hands clasped between his knees, and Dean knew he was thinking and left him alone. He had a wrinkle of distress between his brows, but that alone was not Dean’s only signal: Sam in full-out brainiac mode may as well have had an aura surrounding him. He wasn’t just moping out there, and whatever was going on would be worth their while. He went inside and goofed with the entertainment system, choosing among the available MP3s that were already programmed in, selecting classic rock and letting it loop on its own. He kept it down so Sam could think.
When they left for good, he could open the windows and turn that bastard up all the way. Might get someone’s attention.
He looked out the windows facing down onto the Strip and out across the desert beyond.
It still felt like being stranded on an island. One massive, planetwide island.
He rooted around in the writing desk and came up with a pad of paper, then sat on the bed and sketched. Basic layout plans for the kind of water system they were looking for, gravity based and pulling from a decent body of water or well. The kind of filtration system they’d need. How much of a perimeter they’d want, both for keeping watch and to keep clear of wildfires. What he didn’t already know, he could read up on. Maybe there were places further west that were already set up that way and all they’d need to do was maintain it.
Sam had been right. They’d need to find a place to settle in before winter, a place they could count on. Not just somewhere to squat.
They’d go crazy, there, if they stayed more than a week.
Sam came in after a little while and stood by the bed, waiting until Dean glanced up at him before he stretched out on it on his stomach and began looking through Dean’s plans. He raised his eyebrows appreciatively, spreading the pages out along the sheets.
“Let’s go find something to eat,” Dean said.
“Thirty-six fucking floors,” Sam said.
“So we’ll stay lower down, in another room,” Dean said. “Tired of this one, anyway.”
They packed up and left the villa behind. Sam compulsively made the bed. He couldn’t help it.
They stayed on the fourth floor for the night, in a suite. Sam purposely kept to his side of the bed. Dean didn’t make a big deal of it.
In the morning, they headed further west, toward LA.
Utah and Arizona: 8.5 million.
Sam’s tally of the total missing came in at 30 million.
Heading southwest on the 15 took them in to California and past the Mohave National Preserve and the Clark Mountains. Joshua trees and finger canyons, chaparral, white fir. Seemingly endless desert mesas. The lights stayed on through Baker, past the old settlement of Zzyzx, past Crucero and into Barstow. They paused there briefly to grab something to drink and look around.
They passed Victorville and went into LA that afternoon, taking I-5 until they hit Dodger Stadium. Out West Sunset Boulevard past Echo Park, South Alvarado, South Hoover, circling the U of Southern California. Exposition Road led to Rodeo Road, led to South La Cienega and up into Beverly Hills. They went up through West Hollywood, purposely finding the Walk of Fame on Hollywood and Vine.
They got out of the car on Vine near Sunset Boulevard and looked around.
It should have been loaded with traffic beyond its capacity to handle. The whole damn area was famous for that. There were cars parked along the sides of the street and nowhere else.
“Check the airport?” Dean said. “For the hell of it? A couple of hospitals?”
“Why the hell not?” Sam said. “Wanna crash in a star’s house while we’re at it?”
Dean glanced at him, one eyebrow raised while he considered it. “Nah,” he said finally. “Kinda creepy.”
“We’ve got a good long way until dark,” Sam said. “If anyone’s gonna be left anywhere...it’ll be here. At the airports or the malls or the hospitals, someone will have left a sign if there’s anyone left.”
Dean glanced around. It was a little breezy and only partly cloudy, good autumn weather, somewhere in the seventies. Good day for hunting the remainders of humanity.
“Let’s at least look at this neighborhood,” Sam said. “Just for the sake of covering our bases. Feels like maybe we miss something when we just pass through the biggest places without getting in close.”
“See if anybody’s hiding, you mean?” Dean said.
Sam shrugged. “Anybody left has gotta be pretty scared.”
They shared a look. It was brief, but loaded.
They both checked their guns as if on cue.
“Sooner or later,” Dean said, “we gotta figure out where the line is. Where we stop looking and accept the fact that we’re all there is.”
“You ever really ready to call that?” Sam said. “Declare the planet empty?”
“Kinda like breaking up with somebody,” Dean said. “Closure.”
Sam almost laughed. “Breaking up with the world,” he said.
Dean smirked, hearing the aborted laugh anyway.
“Two hours,” Sam said. “Kick some doors in, satisfy the curiosity that it happened the same everywhere.”
Dean heard the unspoken prove to ourselves we can get out of arm’s length without panicking.
They both checked the radios, flicking them on.
They drove west on West Sunset, checking for movement, looking for a good mix of businesses and apartments. Dean turned down North Fairfax. The area was loaded with homes and both big and small businesses, restaurants, damn near everything. The west side of the street went off into a maze of commercial real estate; the east side was mostly residential.
“Which do you want,” Dean said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sam said. Dean could hear the tension in his voice. “I’ll take the east.”
Dean nodded and they both got out at the same time.
“No browsing,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Dean said, “I don’t get many chances to window shop. In LA. Don’t be so picky.”
“You see anything, you let me know,” Sam said. “Don’t go chasing stuff.”
“Jesus, what, I need directions?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, glaring at him over the roof of the car. “Skinwalker. St. Louis. ‘Hey, Dean, don’t go in the sewer by yourself’.”
Dean rolled his eyes and turned away. He broke into a trot to clear the asphalt, angling across a parking lot of a convenience store.
“Two hours,” Sam called.
Dean used his hands to dim the outside light enough around his eyes to let him really look into the plate glass fronts of several stores. Car dealerships, liquor stores, a furniture place, a psychic.
Yeah, well, way to go there, psychic.
There was a health food store, and a shoe store he didn’t recognize the name of. One street over, a strip mall, more restaurants than anything else. Insane colors, glitter, brick facades. It still amazed him that no one looked out at him, that no one passed him, that the sound of traffic no longer served as the background music of his life.
He moved faster to keep the silence from catching him.
He dug his radio out of one pocket and thumbed the switch down. “How’s it going, Sam?”
He only had to wait a moment for the tinny radio-version of Sam to check in. “All quiet.”
Sam didn’t sound any more distressed than he already had.
They didn’t say anything else because there was no good reason to strike up a conversation about how little they were finding.
He cut through the wide parking lot of a bank, passing about a dozen cars. A florist, a deli, a pizza place. He came to the corner of North Laurel and Fountain, and took a long look at the traffic lights, watching them change over once. He half expected a damn tumbleweed to wander through.
It was everything he could do not to hum to himself. He was purposely out in the open, visible to anyone or anything in the buildings, walking along the sidewalks and right out in the middle of the road when he felt like it. It wasn’t like he needed stealth; he just wanted someone to start waving from a rooftop or come running out of a parking garage to ask him what the hell had really happened.
His neck ached with the need to twist his head and check for cars before crossing. So many automatic things, all ingrained. So many habits developed solely to deal with other people.
He passed a jeweler and didn’t dare to look in. Nothing was valuable anymore, anyway. It was all just rocks and metals, again, like it had been before. He passed a secondhand bookstore and went in, listening to the electronic ding heralding his arrival for a clerk or six that didn’t give a rat’s ass anymore. He loved the old-book smell, dusty and dry, aged paper and glue. He could bring back a couple of things for Sam to look at, something to read in the car, maybe. Something more to distract him. He wandered around and found a couple of do-it-yourself books on plumbing and photovoltaics, stuff he could study up on ahead of time since they’d be figuring out how to fix everything themselves. Both he and Sam knew their way around a lot of basic things besides cars, but they never stayed anywhere long enough to wear anything out. They were thinking about doing that for the first time, and Dean wanted more than a passing grasp on how to keep them comfortable. Hell, how to live however they wanted to, for once.
He lost track of time completely. The light shifted and he didn’t pay any attention to it.
He finally shoved the books into a bag and headed south again. There was a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard, and he went in and poked around. Everything in the cases was moldy. He screwed around with the machine until he figured out how to make himself an Americano without getting himself too burned. He routed around in the refrigerator for creamers and didn’t find any. It was all the real stuff with these guys, and no way was any of it still safe to use. He sighed and looked around outside, finding a bagel place across the way. They had crummy nondairy creamers in their fridge, about the only thing that would still be good. He just wasn’t in the mood to take it black, for once. He was damn sorry he’d opened that fridge, though. Stuff was definitely expiring everywhere.
He sipped at his coffee as he walked, remembering a song from the 80's that he’d hated, about how nobody walks in LA. Who did that song? Wasn’t it some chick with pink hair? Didn’t matter.
He went west down Santa Monica and then back up Crescent Heights. His feet were beginning to get tired, so he cut back over to Laurel and through to Hayworth again, headed back toward Fairfax and the car. It had to be getting close to –
He heard a voice and froze to listen hard.
He heard it again – human, definitely. One hand on his gun, he began to head toward it, unsure where it was really coming from with the echoes off the buildings.
High, panicked. Shouting one syllable. Dean felt for his radio, wanting to raise Sam and see if he heard it too. No way he had, since he hadn’t already tried to ask Dean about it.
There was no digital readout on his radio. It was dead. Same for his cellphone; they’d quit bothering to charge them.
His watch said nearly three hours had passed since they’d split up.
He heard the voice again, raised in a scream, and knew with everything he was that it was Sam.
He dropped his coffee but kept the books, running full out up Hayworth. Sam had not come looking for him in the car yet or Dean would have heard it. Instead he’d been wandering street to street on foot yelling for him, probably searching buildings.
Probably thinking he was the only one left.
Dean ran as hard as he ever had in his life, yelling for Sam.
He rounded a corner, sticking close to the corner windows of an antique store
(everything was antique, now, he thought, everything)
with his gun out and at the ready, barrel pointed down at an angle, not knowing what he’d be walking into, heart in his throat at the panic he could hear in Sam’s voice. “Sam! I’m over here!”
Sam rounded the opposite corner of the store, running wide into the street, the sun in his hair. His face didn’t register recognition for a moment, as if he just couldn’t believe he was looking at Dean.
“Hey,” Dean said, tucking his gun away, then holding his hands out to the sides in a what the hell is all this gesture.
Sam slid to his knees on the pavement and braced his hands against them, head hanging.
Dean trotted over and crouched down, leaning over to try and get a look at his face. “You okay? Sam?”
Sam’s only response was to look like he was trying to stay conscious.
Sam’s heart triphammered hard enough that Dean could feel it in the pulse against his fingers when he laid a hand on the side of Sam’s neck. “Hey,” he said. “Hey. The damn thing quit on me, that’s all. I didn’t know it was so damn late. Okay? Sam?” He moved his hand up to cup Sam’s jaw in response to how hard Sam was breathing, how panicked he still was. “Sammy. Come on, say something. If you pass out, I’m just gonna put a bunch of makeup and chick’s clothes on you, or put you in really embarrassing positions and take pictures. You know me.”
The hand Sam rested on Dean’s shoulder in return was shaky and weak, as if it took everything he had left to get it there.
“You okay?” Dean said, shaking him a little. “Sammy?”
Sam finally glanced up at him through sweat-damp bangs, eyes dark and only partly focused. He used his free hand to stop bracing himself and pressed the palm to the side of Dean’s face, thumb sweeping up along one eyebrow, tracing the edge of Dean’s eye.
The hand on Dean’s shoulder gripped a handful of shirt and yanked sharply, sending him forward and off balance from the crouch he’d been in. He went to his knees flush against Sam, nearly into his lap, arms wrapping around for balance. “What the - “
The last thing he expected was the wet warmth of Sam’s open mouth against his throat that became a bite near his collarbone. Or hands gripping the denim at his hips roughly. He braced one hand against the ground and one against Sam’s shoulder, trying to get some leverage. “Sam –“
Sam caught the back of Dean’s head in one hand, pressing, mouth close against his ear. “Need to look at you,” he whispered.
Dean couldn’t still the shiver when Sam’s lips made contact, or the next when Sam’s idea of ‘looking’ became a tongue across his Adam’s apple and another bite against the skin of his throat. Sam breathed open-mouthed against his skin while shoving his jacket and flannel off his shoulders, making it difficult to move his arms and even moreso when Sam shoved his tshirt up. Combination of cold early November chill and the scrape of Sam’s fingernails, and Dean’s hips jerked up and forward involuntarily. He cursed under his breath, trying again for leverage against Sam, feeling his body respond and needing to get the hell away before it all went further. He knew all too well that it had been at least two weeks prior to Moment Zero that he’d even touched another person, making it too damn long and enough to make it too easy for Sam to distract him. He got one foot under himself again and could have put more force behind it, but Sam was already pulling him in harder, applying enough pressure to make Dean pause on a stutter of breath.
He who hesitates is lost.
Dean got that thought to come through just before Sam stood, one long and easy surge to his feet, full of enough adrenaline to bring Dean with him and hold him clear of the ground for a moment. He didn’t actually put Dean down; Dean slid back to his feet by gravity, jacket caught at elbows and hampering his movement, Sam’s hands still under his shirt and face tucked into his throat, still breathing harshly.
Dean heard as well as felt the shallowness in his own voice. “Hey – “
Sam grabbed Dean’s face in both hands, framing it, looking close at him with tears on his face, and Dean waited for it to pass, for Sam to quit being so frantic and realize things were as okay as they were ever going to be again. But then Sam leaned in and kissed him on the mouth, brief and warm, turning his face to rub it against Dean’s, stubble on stubble, a whisper of burn that was enough electricity to keep Dean in place. Dean was more shocked by his own reactions than he was to Sam’s way of calming himself down. He didn’t struggle when Sam caught handfuls of his jacket where it was hanging under his elbows and began walking him backwards until his back was against the entrance doors. They swung open under his weight and Sam’s, and Dean felt carpeting under his feet and a minor rise in temperature, just slightly warmer than the air outside. It smelled of dust and old roses and ancient paper in there, bordered with a long-past hint of cleaning products. They were chest to chest with Sam leaning his chin along Dean’s shoulder, guiding. They passed an old glass-topped dining set, and a leg from one of the hardbacked chairs caught briefly on the heel of one of Dean’s boots. Dean could feel Sam’s heart still pounding, how unsteady his breathing was, how convinced he’d really been that he was all that was left, but instead of sympathy there was anticipation and throat-tightening horror to go with it. He didn’t think Sam was going to actually do anything, but he wasn’t about to ask any questions or try and get his own equilibrium back just in case, and there was an exhilarating awfulness about that.
He felt something hit the back of his knees and didn’t care about losing his balance and falling. Puff of quilted comforter in some rose pattern, creak of elderly bed frame, edge of the butt of his gun angled wrong and digging into his hip a little. Cold afternoon sun chasing after them into the dim confines of the place and haloing Sam, dust motes streaming across haphazard beams of light.
Sam leaned right in after him, hands at his throat and sliding downward, thumbs tracing contours, encountering the still-bare skin of his chest and planting an open-mouthed kiss above his heart. Dean lifted a hand and tangled it in the hair on the back of Sam’s head. “Sam,” he said.
Sam paused, breathing against his skin again in a way that made it hard to speak.
“I’m here,” Dean said. “I’m really here.”
Sam crawled onto the bed with him and lowered himself, warm weight along hip and chest, elbows braced on either side of his head. A shift of hips and he knew how hard Sam was, body betraying him again when he tried to arch into the twisting stab of pleasure, mouth slack with shock when Sam kissed him again.
He tasted like fear and something sugary and Sam. Dean kept telling himself he was just letting Sam get away with something, just letting him get over it, but even he felt the lie.
It was good to feel something besides the constant anxiety of waking to a world they would never recognize again.
He tightened his knees against Sam’s hips and fell into the desperation of it. Sam’s tongue curled and slid along his own, comfort and possession and demand. Sam hitched his hips higher, breath catching audibly, sliding his hands and forearms under Dean’s shoulders and tucking his face into Dean’s throat, getting a different kind of leverage when he began to move against him.
Dean felt like he was going to suffocate, but he would have had to hurt Sam to get away from him. By then, he wasn’t willing to do either. He let his head tip back against the bed and gripped Sam’s shoulders, knowing somehow that he wasn’t supposed to participate much further than that because it was about letting Sam have him. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t used to the idea in general, or that Sam held a place in his life that should never have led to a desperate bout of dry-humping in what would have once been considered public.
“I’m here,” Dean said again, nothing but a whisper, Sam’s tears and breath against his skin and the rough friction of hips finding just the right angle, less to do with fucking than finding proof of life. Life dwindled to soft, breathless moans and the scrape of the bed’s slats as it tried to hold together.
Sam’s thrusts shortened and grew sharper, a loss of control Dean absorbed easily, strong enough to take it, for Sam to finally let it all go.
Sam stilled and pressed in harder, and Dean purposely arched up as hard as he could, wrapping his legs around Sam’s hips, head thrown back even further for balance. Sam dragged air audibly back into his lungs and jerked against him, then again, half a dozen times before settling with another gasp.
Dean held on to him, unsure of what else to do. He waited for Sam to burst into tears or fall asleep or freak out and apologize, all of which were completely plausible at that point, but Sam slid his hands out from underneath and braced himself up as if he was thinking of doing pushups. His head hung down between his shoulders, hair just brushing Dean’s chest. He was shaking visibly.
Dean opened his mouth to say something, but Sam was already moving again, sliding down and off the bed onto his knees, hands at Dean’s belt.
“Sam,” Dean said hoarsely.
He’d meant to ask Sam what the hell he was doing, and managed to lift his head in time to watch Sam unbutton his fly and go for the zipper, and when he started to sit up, Sam was looking very determined and just reached right in and cupped him in one hand, through his boxers.
Dean had gone hard and stayed that way through all of it, and Sam’s grip meant business. Dean wasn’t happy with the relief that flooded him but he didn’t recoil, either.
Apparently Sam wasn’t done looking.
The world just kept on ending, a piece at a time.
Dean sat up, legs still spread, using his hands to brace himself while Sam stroked him, and there was something more intimate about it that way, through cloth, that close but no closer, barely any skin involved. Desperate but still furtive and shy, and more intense for it. He tensed a little when Sam’s free hand ran along the outside of Dean’s thigh, then tensed a hell of a lot more when that hand slipped in and put pressure on his balls. He tried so hard not to look at Sam, at the need on his face as he leaned it against the inside of Dean’s knee, but it was the thing that made the gathering tension in his groin and spine spill over, hands gripping at the comforter convulsively. Sam’s hands slowed, working him through it gently, almost too gently, somehow knowing exactly when to stop.
Dean flopped back against the bed again, eyes closed, nothing to hear but Sam’s breathing and his own. He heard the rustle of clothing as Sam sat down on the floor.
The world spun just a little in the darkness behind Dean’s eyes.
Then he opened them to stare at the cracked and slightly water stained ceiling.
“Oh my God,” he said. “We’re...antiquers.”
They both felt the humor in it but couldn’t even laugh.
They sat in the car and the silence was even larger than the one outside.
It had taken them a minute or so to put themselves back in order, out of synch with each other again as if Sam had just come back from school, a disorientation that superceded even the one they’d been feeling over the change in the world. The axis they balanced on with each other had been tilted slightly over time anyway, but now it felt like a moment of true vertigo.
Dean picked up the bag of books he’d dropped outside. Apologizing to Sam about losing track of time seemed small and pointless. He had terrified Sam into a full blown panic without meaning to, frightened him into running from street to street screaming for him. That was even less Sam than what had happened immediately after.
He wanted to reach out and pat his shoulder, shove him, poke him in the ribs, anything. But he couldn’t make contact. Sam was still jittering, keyed up to the point where Dean wasn’t sure what the hell would happen if he tried to touch him. Adrenaline and fear did crazy things to people, made them do things they’d never think of otherwise. Desperate things.
“There’s nobody out here,” Sam said, and he was hoarse. Dean nearly flinched from the residual emotion in his voice. “Anywhere. There’s no point looking anymore.”
Dean let the words settle. “Tell me what you want to do.”
“Stay out of cities,” Sam said immediately. “Lot of places are gonna burn, sooner or later, and...just, somewhere we can see all sides.”
Dean nodded and started the car. Moving on was something he could do, something he could control, and leaving the place behind was a relief.
Sam stops counting at 300 million: the population of the US. The political boundaries don’t mean anything anymore, but he’s losing a lot of other boundaries suddenly and he’s got to draw lines somewhere.
They found a hotel further north in Bakersfield, something simple and closer to what they were used to. The Holiday Inn Express was still quite a bit nicer than most of the motels they’d been haunting the last couple of years, but it was nothing extravagant. They needed something familiar, if only that much, if only for a short while. They unloaded the car without looking at each other or speaking. Sam had gone stone silent and stayed that way. Dean didn’t even attempt to pull him out of it. He had no idea what the hell to do or say.
He showered and changed clothes and then waited for Sam to do the same. For the hell of it, he flipped channels and wasn’t surprised to find nothing but snow. He figured it would be hilarious to give up on the world only to later discover it had been back for awhile. Peekaboo, just kidding, gotcha. Like maybe timespace hiccupped and he and Sam would age twenty years, and then everybody would snap back into place without having missed a minute. Could totally happen.
He replaced the batteries in both the radios with a pang of guilt.
Dean tried to calculate how long to let Sam mope, and how long they could afford it. He’d never gotten around to making that flow chart he’d always promised to. He was just as shaken over what was rapidly becoming That Thing In The Antique Store in his mind, bigger than Moment Zero, but it wasn’t like it was completely out of the realm of understanding. Too late to be awkward with each other, over anything.
When the water had been off for about ten minutes or so and Sam hadn’t come out, Dean went and banged on the door. “Dude, come on. We got mapping and shit to do.”
Oh, that was an oldie but a goodie. Dean loved that tone and the bitchery that went with it, all warning signs that Sam had had enough and was shutting down. First the world ended, then I got sick on him, then I made him think he was the last person on earth. Two more reasons than he really needed.
He backed up a step and kicked the door right in, cheap hollow core and molding splintering everywhere.
“Jesus Christ, Dean, wha –“
Dean clapped one hand over Sam’s mouth and the other around the back of his still-damp head, and backed him right into the wall by the tub. Sam was still only wearing a towel, and he couldn’t be sure but he thought he’d gotten a glimpse of Sam sitting on the edge of the tub with his head in his hands like he just couldn’t move any further. Sam managed to grab Dean’s forearms and get out a startled mmph! before Dean spoke.
“This is all really fucked up,” he said. “Let’s agree on that, okay? I’m about to lose it, you’re halfway there already, nothin’ we can do about what a craptastic month September’s been. We’ve got each other and nothing else. If we get sick of each other, that’s too bad, there’s no one else to tell and nowhere else to go. With everything else goin’ on, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what happened in LA after you found me. You wanna hit me, I deserve it. Or do you need to ‘look’ at me again?”
Sam blushed. Dean had been hoping to see just that, wanting to see how Sam would react, and was glad it wasn’t much more than garden variety embarrassment. He let him go but didn’t get out of his space.
“You wanna make a big deal out of something? You freak out because the world ended, not because you and me just...” he waved his hands around, looking for a suitable euphemism to use. “Shit, haven’t we done everything else?”
“Are you gonna pretend to be rational over this?” Sam said, the amazement and outrage warring with the embarrassment. “Bullshit, Dean, where do you get off being rational?”
“Nice choice of words,” Dean said. When Sam gave him an annoyed, questioning look, he added, “Get off?”
“Are you gonna find any bigger way of tryin’ to demonstrate what I mean to you?” Dean said. “‘Cause I need you to warn me, if it’s gonna be more than that.”
Sam stared at him in something that looked like horror. But understanding dawned on his face, too, and Dean backed off a step and dropped his eyes. “Yeah, so...fine, whatever.” He walked back out of the bathroom.
Sam remained against the wall, still staring at the spot Dean had been in.
“I need a fuckin’ Thomas Guide for all these counties, Sam!” Dean shouted from the other room. “So move your ass.”
Sam moved his ass.
They picked up guides and maps for everything north of Bakersfield. They could use them in the car as they traveled, and it would give them enough info about the landscape and the accessible bodies of water that they could begin narrowing down their parameters. They couldn’t count on the laptop and the hit-and-miss wireless and servers that were still running to map everything out. If they didn’t find just the right place by winter, they could at least stick it out somewhere with enough supplies and hope the power lasted through spring.
Neither of them felt that much like eating, so they found snacks in the storage area behind the kitchen. They divided everything between them and began searching. Dean spread everything out on the floor after making coffee downstairs. They circled possibilities and jotted notes in the margins, bending pages to mark them for later examination. Not too close to the foothills of any mountain range, not too many trees. Reliable water source. Upwind of any nuclear source. Not too close to any large housing development or any other area where buildings were too close together. After that, they would have to check the areas one by one, bit by bit, to see if there were small farms or even just a single decent home with a little land that was already set up for solar power. If nothing else, they could handle that themselves, somehow. Wind power was out; sooner or later, the turbines needed maintenance and the whole system would go down. Generators wouldn’t last forever, either. Even with additives, gas evaporated or went bad if enough time passed. They could ultimately live without power, but they didn’t have to.
It was well after midnight before Dean leaned up and away from the tableau on the floor and rubbed at his eyes. “Enough of this shit,” he said. He blinked up at Sam, who was still on one of the beds. Sam didn’t glance back, but he did flip one of the guides over.
Dean pulled his shirt over his head as he stood, flinging it over the table by the window and knocking over the little folded placard that told them the staff was there to make their stay comfortable. Sam rolled up to a sitting position with his back to Dean.
“You gonna stay up?” Dean said, stripping out of his jeans and kicking them across the floor.
“Um...yeah,” Sam said. “Maybe we should...look, I could take the room next door.”
“Shove the beds together, Sam,” Dean said.
“I just don’t think – “
“You do this now, you get all separate, it’s gonna make everything harder. Why am I the one who’s gotta explain this to you?”
Sam shook his head. “I can’t handle this, right now, Dean. Okay?”
“Then don’t,” Dean said bluntly. “Take everything one step at a time. Don’t freak out on me, Sam.”
“I already did,” Sam said. “That’s the problem.”
“You afraid the neighbors are gonna find out?” Dean said. “Nobody gives a shit, Sam, it happened. It happened and it wasn’t as big a deal as you’re making of it.”
“I didn’t exactly ask you,” Sam said, head lowered, hair hiding his face.
Dean looked at him, really looked, at the slump of his shoulders and the line of his back, the way his hands were clasped between his knees. And he got the last piece. It shocked him as much as anything else had, in the last several weeks. “I didn’t exactly try and stop you,” he said. “Jesus, Sam. Are you kidding me? Sammy. I didn’t even try and get away from you.”
Sam’s shoulders were shaking, but he was silent.
Dean looked to the ceiling. Habitual plea to the heavens, attempt to keep himself from speaking. After a moment, he got on the other side of the bed farthest from the door and shoved it into the bed Sam was on. He got under the covers on his side and pulled all the blankets down, flipping them until there was no separation between the beds. “C’mon, kiddo. Sleep for awhile. No big deal, and we’ll do better tomorrow. Okay?”
He hadn’t meant to be cajoling, but he couldn’t help it. He wasn’t sure how else to handle an adult Sam who was this upset. They’d been moving so fast for so long, running or hunting, that there had never been time before.
Dean leaned over and turned off the light on his side, then rolled back towards Sam.
After several more moments, Sam reached to turn off the lamp on his side, then laid down on top of the covers on his back to stare at the ceiling.
Dean decided not to say anything else. He fell asleep watching Sam.
He awoke with Sam plastered to his back, one arm flung over his ribs.
He was relieved.
“Pick,” Dean said.
Sam was leaning over a cup of coffee, invested in it in a way that told Dean he just simply didn’t want eye contact of any kind.
Dean put a finger down on the map just above Bakersfield. Sam looked at the page for a moment, then traced a finger close to Dean’s. “Here,” he said. “Porterville Highway. Takes us close to another tributary, here. Looks like...what, the Kern River? We can check everything around there, then a ways east if we need to. Looks like it’s all farmland.”
Dean nodded and dogeared the pages.
The first day of October, the first day they decided to find one place to settle down, was a partly cloudy day in the mid seventies. Perfect day to drive, to look around until they lost the light.
Driving, like the old days. In less than a month, everything had become the old days.
They left the highway and headed west a little, following the river and out of desert into farmland. Even fields cut low, or high with weeds when left fallow; even rows left in the dirt by the wheels of machinery. Orchards, vineyards, stray groves. The farms they passed were too large, too open.
“Too flat,” Sam said. “We don’t want the foothills, but we want a little cover.”
“Where are all the hippies when we need them?” Dean said. “It’s California, somebody had to build the perfect environmentally-organic dream house around here.”
“Probably not right in the agricultural center of the state, though,” Sam said. “We can keep track of the ones that’re close enough.” He made marks on the Thomas Guide that was open across his lap. “Maybe further north.”
They got onto the 99 north, cut across to the Paso Robles Highway, and took their time.
The first house that got their attention was a small white stucco home tucked into the shadow of trees with a barn, a detached garage, and visible water storage.
They stood at the top of the driveway and listened. No dogs barking. No visible grazing animals nearby. If there’d been any, they’d figured out soon enough that no more feed was coming from the Food Gods that had inhabited the house.
They kept their hands on their guns anyway. It was a habit that had never steered them wrong.
Dean peered in the windows and found the front door unlocked. They ignored the house in favor of the outbuildings for several minutes.
“Still pretty much out in the open,” Sam said, squinting against the sun. “Not hooked up to the river except for irrigation. We’re not gonna need anything like that.”
“House is maybe 1940's,” Dean said. “Rolled roof’s about to go.”
They walked back for the car, careful not to scuff their feet.
The second place they looked at was further north, past Lost Hills. Off Corcoran Road was the Garces Highway, more farmland, plus a reservoir and a separate fishing pond. Two stories, vinyl siding, grouping of trees for shade. It was surrounded with fields. There were two other homes nearby, smaller, older.
They stared into the reservoir, gauging capacity, considering the possibility of drought. They didn’t say anything to each other. They didn’t need to.
The front and back doors were unlocked. There was no evidence that anyone or anything had tried to get in or out. Not from the outside, at least.
The inside of the door was gouged as if from claw marks, deepest near the bottom. The lower kitchen cupboards were all open, and the garbage from under the sink was strewn across the kitchen and most of the dining area. They smelled it before they saw it: in one corner of the dining room was the body of a small dog.
Dean steered Sam away by gripping a double handful of his jacket and moving him toward the stairs.
They checked the rooms on either side of the hallway at the top of the stairs, three in all. It had been left neat, with the regular signs of life left around in the form of shoes and books and a cup of coffee on a nightstand that had long gone moldy.
Dean stood by a window on the far side of the bed in the master bedroom, looking down.
Sam stood, hands in pockets, feeling like an intruder, like the owners might come back at any moment. “Might not be all that easy to find many wells, out here,” he said. “All the geologic activity. I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Still need a reliable water source. Maybe both a reservoir and a well.”
“Feel like anything to you?” Dean said.
Sam came to stand next to him at the windows and looked down into the yard. “You gotta quit asking me that,” he said. “I’m not some psychic wonder.”
“I’m just asking you how the house feels, y’little snot,” Dean said. “Like if it seems...I don’t know, friendly or something, like buildings kind of do. Get over yourself.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Ass.”
“We gotta keep a list, in case something happens and we have to pick another place,” Dean said. “List all the possibles, then decide on a short list. This’s a good location, lots of water, easy to grow stuff if we want to, plenty of defensible space. But there might be better places that’re already set up. I don’t wanna have to do everything from scratch unless there’s no other way.” He scratched at a spot on the sill where the paint had begin to chip. “Newer buildings are better, so we don’t have to do so much repair work right away.”
It occurred to Sam that Dean had been doing more talking in the last several weeks than he had in the last year.
Dean’s voice had become one of the most important things in Sam’s life.
He wanted to ask Dean whether he’d talked more when he’d been hunting with just their father for company, just to hear a human voice.
They left as quickly as they’d come, and headed a little further west, driving slow, checking the map.
Garces Highway ended when Corcoran Road cut it perpendicular. Just beyond, more fields and a small lake that drained to several small ponds. The homes nearby looked like temporary rentals for field workers. Sam marked the maps.
When it got close enough to darkness nearly three farms later, they found a hotel further north in Corcoran. They were both so tired that they tumbled into bed without words, awkward or otherwise.
- October 2nd
Outside Corcoran was a series of carefully planned irrigation ditches, pulling off another river tributary. Further north was Lemoore, a small farming community.
“Any further west and we’re probably closer to the ocean than we want to be, storm-wise,” Sam said, sitting on the hood of the car. “Head east, past Visalia, and there’s a few lakes and rivers that way.”
They were only on their second day, and they’d taken to searching homes with a practiced eye for what they didn’t have rather than what they needed. Their sentences had become choppier and they spoke only when they had to. Their energy went into miles and miles of farmland and the plotting of waterways where once there had been the cleaning of weapons and a life of leaping from ledge to ledge without ever knowing if the next one would be there.
- October 3rd
Too many places too close to the foothills, too close to canyons, too likely to get caught in brush fires if the Santa Ana winds came through again.
- October 4th
Too flat. Too much water without any chance for gravity to move it the ways they wanted it to move. Dairy farms, places too close to developments, places where the power lines were all above ground and could blow down while they were still needed, before self-sufficiency was attained.
Too much silence.
- October 5th
It was beginning to get colder at night. They felt it even indoors, even with the power still on the further north they headed, even though they shared a bed.
Sam tried to keep a little distance and felt it like a weight. Dean was too tired to notice.
- October 6th
There are a series of ponds off the 99 northwest of Selma that look like they could be useful, could become part of a gravity based plumbing system if they needed to start from scratch. Two homes nearby, one with solar power, the other with several generators. Like they’d been part of an experiment or trying to cut their power bills a little. Sam marked the maps and followed Dean through the houses, no longer actually paying that much attention. He knew on a conscious level how important it all was, but underneath it had already begun to feel mechanical.
Dean made a point of always looking out the windows, all the windows. Sam didn’t ask him about it. He just stood with him.
The house with solar power wasn’t what they were looking for, not exactly, but it would be a good backup if they needed one.
“It’s gotta have recent updates,” Sam said. “Maybe we’re not looking in areas where the construction is new enough. Somewhere out of the really big farm areas, more of a retreat of some kind that we can convert. You know?”
He waited for Dean to answer and glanced at him when he didn’t.
Dean was frozen in place, head tipped slightly forward.
He was absentmindedly scratching the back of Dean’s neck, nails lightly scraping along his skin.
He didn’t even realize he was doing it, at first. Never in their lives had he made a habit of reaching out to touch Dean; that was Dean’s deal. Sam connected mentally and Dean connected physically. It was Dean who struck out with a fist when he was angry, or laid a gentle hand on Sam’s back when he was worried for him, patted his face, slapped him in the back of the head. For all his bravado and attempts at distance, Dean needed physical contact like he needed air. He had no problem initiating it, but tended to slap it away when someone reciprocated unless it came from an Approved Source, meaning someone female, reasonably hot and adventurous.
The world was, lately, very limiting in its ability to provide that.
Sooner or later, like always, they only had each other.
Dean scratched at the back of his neck when he was nervous or needed a moment to think or was otherwise out of his element. It was one of his quirks, one Sam knew the way he knew each of the subtle tones in Dean’s voice when he was trying to tell Sam something without spelling it out. Dean’s body language was so familiar to Sam that he had stopped noticing most of it.
The hair at the nape of Dean’s neck was fine and soft, beginning to grow out since having it trimmed was about the last thing on anybody’s mind. Now that he was aware of what he was doing, Sam was afraid to stop and afraid to go on, because there was no good outcome to it. More than that, the chance at contact startled him as much as the realization of how badly he needed it. It hummed along the bones of his wrist and up his forearm, and he tried so hard not to move otherwise, not to break the spell.
He finally snapped his hand down and turned, damn near running out of the house.
Dean didn’t say anything when he came out.
- October 7th
Sam began to wonder if he was losing his mind a piece at a time, if he always had been, and then maybe in the absence of enough to keep him on the rails...
- October 8th
Many miles more of farmland and he really is going to run screaming into it.
- October 9th
All the way up to Sacramento, they were trapped between coastal mountain ranges and inland mountain ranges, and it began to rain.
When they settled in a hotel in Sacramento, he stared at Dean’s sleeping back and let his fingers get within inches on the sheets, desperate for the contact and terrified of it.
- October 10th
They headed west to Antioch because anything further north was going to run them straight into more mountains. They’re running out of California and while Sam’s wondering how southern Oregon would be, he shoves all the maps off his bed with a crash that startles Dean into looking at him.
Sam has one moment of clarity then, of how tired Dean looks, how bone weary. Dark circles and sleepy eyes, nothing left to rid the world of, no one left to touch, caught between mountain ranges and Sam and one last chance to keep them both safe.
Dean doesn’t ask him what his problem is, just goes back to sketching and jotting notes.
Later, after Dean fell asleep, Sam crawled into bed and concentrated on watching him breathe.
Dean rolled over after a moment and looked at him.
Sam stared back for the first time in more than a week.
“You waiting for an invitation?” Dean said.
There was nothing in his voice or face to indicate he was kidding. There should have been some sort of challenge in it, and to Sam’s confusion, there wasn’t.
“You gotta leave it alone for now,” Sam said finally.
Dean kept staring at him. Then he rolled over again. “It’s not like you’re gonna lose me,” he said.
Sam felt like taking that three different ways and tried to pass each one off. He wasn’t used to Dean being enigmatic. He wasn’t used to anything anymore.
- October 11th
It wasn’t as if he didn’t care. But he got careless all the same.
Citrus Heights and Roseville were too built up, too many homes and businesses close enough together to be a hazard if any one thing caught fire. To the east near Folsom Lake was a small town called Hidden Valley. If they stayed to the west of Auburn-Folsom Road, there were stands of trees alongside homes that didn’t encroach on one another. There was access to the lake, and it would work as an adequate water source overall. Two of the houses were set up with solar power based on the panels that were visible on the roofs, and how much of the southern facing walls were glass.
They checked the first house. Bilevel, board siding, newer asphalt shingle roof, maybe 1500 square feet. Well tended at one point, even if the weeds and grass were already beginning to run wild.
The front door was open.
They stood in the yard and waited, knowing they had announced themselves to who or whatever might be inside just by driving up.
Stray sparrows and waxwings hung around the trees at the edge of the drive, making only enough noise to make their surroundings seem even more resoundingly silent. Dean finally approached with Sam several steps back and to one side. Sam drew his gun.
Dean nudged the door open with one foot and listened past the creak of the hinges for any scattering of feet across the floor. There was a flurry of wings, and a flash of black as a crow came off the stair railing inside and took off across the raised main floor.
Birds had made it inside and it looked like raccoons had at some point as well, but nothing challenged them and the place wasn’t being wrecked. They made a perfunctory search of all the rooms. Rotting fruit and moldy bread on the counters in the kitchen; something leaking from the front of the fridge.
“Not bad,” Dean said. “Not what I really had in mind, but it’d do if we don’t find anything else.”
Dean’s voice sounded rusty from disuse. Sam fought down the urge to grab him and force something more out of him, to put his head against Dean’s chest to listen to him breathe.
Dean glanced at him as if picking up some part of his mood. Then he jerked a thumb at the ceiling. “Wanna look at the solar panels on the roof.”
“I’ll go,” Sam said. “I’ve read all the stuff you’ve been carrying around, I know what we’re looking for.”
Dean hesitated visibly. As much as Sam didn’t want to see it, he recognized it all too well. There were so many days in their past before Sam had left for college that had been full of are you sure’s and maybe next time’sand not by yourself ‘s. Then their father’s voice would intone something along the lines of he’s gotta learn, Dean and they were some of the only times Sam would agree with his father.
Sam felt that same moment of doubt he always had when seeing that hesitation, knowing he was picking up Dean’s worry but still reacting with annoyance. Dean didn’t know any better than to give in to the urge to protect, but Sam wished he would just give it a rest.
He headed for the garage, glancing up at the front of the house as he did so. There were no windows that would afford access to the roof. If there was no ladder in the garage, then someone in the area would have one. He wasn’t about to try and get Dean to give him a boost.
The garage was locked, and as he was headed back in to find the inside access to it, he saw the shed around the back. He kicked a few crane flies up as he headed across the yard. Dean was off to his right, looking at the meters that were bolted to the siding by the southeast corner of the house.
No padlock on the weathered door, and the window was too clouded with dust to see anything beyond.
Nothing scurried away when he opened the door.
Yard tools, an old lawnmower, unidentified parts of some machine. A couple of tires. Gas cans, a vise on a small makeshift workbench, terra cotta pots holding dry dirt and signs of long dead plant life. Against one wall, a scuffed ladder with yellow paint still visible along the inside rungs. Sam hefted it out.
He put it along the side of the house that dipped closest to the ground, the ground level portion over the garage. He made sure the ladder’s legs were on a level patch of grass and pounded one foot on the lowest rung to settle them in. He tapped the ladder along the fascia above to make sure it rested evenly. Then he climbed up.
When he was shoulders above the roof and looking out over it, he felt something travel through the metal to his hands, and glanced down to find Dean holding the lower part of the ladder. Dean wasn’t looking at him, just frowning out across the yard, so Sam suppressed a sigh and braced his hands on the shingles as he pulled himself up the rest of the way.
His boots made for perfect traction across the grainy surface. He stood and stretched his back for a moment, leaning to account for the slant of the roof, moderate and common. No moss to cause him to slip, no curling shingles to avoid. He could see the road they’d come in off of, and the not so distant northern Sierras. Just beyond them would be Lake Tahoe.
He looked at the roof over the main part of the house and could see the photovoltaic cells, a five by five area on the southern facing slant of the roof. They probably just picked up the slack with it; it wouldn’t be enough to run the house by. Sam knew it was possible to have entire roofs made of the cells, then to store the power in batteries for nights and rainy days. Ideally, they’d be able to find and install external cells, an array of them, and store whatever power they needed. They wouldn’t need a hell of a lot, anyway. It was just the two of them, and it wasn’t like they’d be watching TV and running the dishwasher or anything. They’d want hot water and a chance to run heat occasionally, and the ability to keep food cold.
It was a good plan. They were doing all the right things. All the smart things, to survive. They weren’t even having to rough it, for Christ’s sake. Maybe never would. There was no telling how long the hydroelectric would last without anybody left to tweak and repair the generators; maybe months, maybe years. Something would give eventually. But not yet.
Sooner or later, they’d need to do more than just survive.
He crouched down and examined the cells up close. He wasn’t hot on wanting to install any more cells on the roof, because it would be easier to find a house that was really set up to run mainly on solar already. If it got down to it, he could run a search online while there were still local servers running. A demo house or something, a community purposely built to show everybody how easy it was. He ran his fingers along the edges and thought about how it came down to what they really needed, what they could do without. He stood and stepped over the ridge, straddling either side of it for a moment and looking out across the yard again. They could use this house if they really needed to, maintain it as a backup or something.
He shifted his weight to the other side of the roof, all on one foot for a moment at an angle, and when his ankle gave, it was enough of a shock to him that he never got a good grip when he tumbled. He tore his nails on the edge of the roof when the inertia pulled him off, no gutters on that side of the house, and he didn’t even see the ground rush up.
He heard Dean yell no and it sounded so final.
Sam didn’t open his eyes, just realized it was Dean’s voice addressing him. Dean, being gruff again, voice low and almost guttural with fear.
There was a long moment where Sam believed he’d been knocked out on a hunt; he’d open his eyes and there’d be another dark alley or a sewer or some warehouse and they’d be working on how to get the hell out of there. But there was sun on his face, and his head hurt like hell but it was also resting on something comfortable enough that he could think past it. The hand on his throat had to be Dean’s; he recognized the touch. How many times had Dean had to feel for a pulse, over their lives?
“Sorry,” Sam said, even though he had no idea what the hell he was apologizing for.
“Hey,” Dean said. “Sam, come on. Open your eyes. You’re okay.”
Dean, trying to make something fact by stating it aloud.
Sam squinted against the light for a moment, then didn’t have to as much when Dean shaded his eyes for him. “What - ?”
“Can you see okay?” Dean said. “Feel everything? Arms, legs, everything?”
Sam could still hear the fear underlying the standard everything’s okay tone of voice that slid into place every time one of them was hurt. He had a sudden memory of falling on the pavement outside a house they were staying in when he was little, skinning his knees on the asphalt and feeling the welling of tears that came with the pain, opening his mouth to give voice to it and hearing his older brother say Oh my God, Sam, did you dent the road? Did you? Did you break the road?
And he had checked the surface for damage, and forgot the pain.
He didn’t nod. It hurt too much. “Yeah,” he said instead. “S’okay. What - ?”
“What’s your middle name?” Dean said.
Sam finally opened his eyes enough to look at Dean, at the face above his so pale that his freckles stood out. Dean was out of breath and his eyes were wide and worried, staring down on him without blinking. He realized his head was in Dean’s lap.
“John,” Sam said. “Yours is Michael, you’re an Aquarius, and you like moonlit walks on the beach and frisky women.” He grinned.
Dean didn’t reciprocate. He stared at him for another moment, then lifted his face, green eyes lit up like gems in the slanted light, bright and looking hard to one side to keep it from being more.
Sam concentrated on checking everything, an automatic response to regaining consciousness. He took stock and made a quick mental checklist of what was operational and what wasn’t. He was able to move his feet and hands, and nothing felt broken, just sore. He could tell there’d been an impact of some kind, because that was hard to miss once you’d been through one.
“You fell off the roof,” Dean said. “You dumb sonofabitch, you fell off the roof.”
Did you dent the ground, Sammy? Did you? Did you break the ground?
The rest of it clicked in, and the nearly pleasant disconnect he’d been part of vanished. On the roof, looking at solar panels; looking at solar panels because they needed somewhere safe to settle down; they needed to settle down because the world had changed too much to let them really wander it, anymore.
“I knew, I knew I should have gone myself, I knew I shouldn’t have let you up there, you’ve been acting like you’re in some goddamn fog for days, you don’t pay any attention and you’re just – “
Sam stopped the diatribe by lifting a hand and resting it on Dean’s chest. Dean laid a hand on Sam’s forehead, palm warm and damp with sweat. Sam heard the hitching in Dean’s breathing and realized Dean was trying not to sob, that if he looked up he’d see what he could rarely stand, Dean’s features crumpling into a mask of pain, eyes and mouth screwed shut so hard that it had to hurt.
He kept his gaze on the sky. Still blue.
“It’s not like I can take you to the ER,” Dean said.
Sam laid on one of the beds in the house he’d just fallen off of.
“You could have internal bleeding, or something.”
Sam knew very well that he could, and that they’d never know, and he could just die in his sleep. The idea didn’t trouble him that much.
“Could have busted an organ.”
Sam knew that, too. But he also knew he wasn’t in shock or feeling any symptoms of starting to go into shock, and that was pretty good. He’d been thrown into walls and over furniture and been beaten within an inch of his life before, and he didn’t feel any different this time. It hadn’t been that much of a fall, maybe twenty feet. He’d jumped further.
“I’m gonna see if I can find a blood pressure cuff, make sure your pressure doesn’t drop,” Dean said.
Dean was pacing. Sam watched him go back and forth, tracking him with his eyes slowly so that he didn’t piss his head off too much. Dean had found a couple of Tylenol and let him have them with a bottle of water, but nothing else. Not yet.
“If it makes you feel better,” Sam said.
Dean looked like he might lose his temper, for a moment. Hands clenching, muscles in his jaw tight, eyes half-lidded. Then he left the room.
Sam closed his eyes wearily. He didn’t feel like sleeping; he was just annoyed with himself. Dean had every right to overreact, but Sam was pretty sure Dean wasn’t actually overreacting. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said softly, knowing Dean hadn’t gone far.
“But you did,” Dean said, voice gruff with anger as he stepped back into the room. “Could’ve broken your neck. Goddamnit, Sam, you’re not...you’re like...what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Stuff’s been a little weird,” Sam said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Even if you weren’t all there is left, you’d still be all I have,” Dean said, and Sam opened his eyes in shock. Dean’s colors were still all washed out as if the light was wrong, but Sam knew his eyes were fine. He just wasn’t used to seeing so much fear from him, so much stress, not since their father had died.
Dean turned his back and walked over to the dresser against the wall by the window, looking through the contents on the top. Change and a lamp and a jewelry box, receipts, photos of people who had vanished. Coupons. A birthday card. Mementos of no further consequence.
Sam found himself wanting to say it’s not about you but he didn’t feel like being unfair just then.
“What do you want me to do?” Dean said.
Sam translated that accurately as I’ll do anything for you.
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “I’m sort of not dealing as well with the whole thing as you are.”
He didn’t need to expound on what the whole thing was. He had felt himself nearly falling apart when it had all began, when he’d realized everyone was gone and nothing would ever be the same. They had played their parts like they always did: Dean panicked in silence and Sam just panicked. Sam had gotten his anguish out early and then had settled in to acceptance just as Dean was beginning to crack. So many weeks later it was an ache in his heart to think that no one was left except him and Dean, but it was a greater ache to think of using Dean the way he wanted to.
“Is it weirder than anything else we’ve ever been through?” Dean said.
Strained, but talking.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “It is.”
Silence. A world of it.
Sam looked around the room, at the rumpled covers of the bed he was on, the way the pillowcases hadn’t been put back on just right the last time they’d been washed, the carelessly tied back floor-length sheers at the windows. Regular life. Some painting he didn’t recognize on one wall, a tree and a fence, stark and kind at the same time. Everything, left as a still life.
“I love you so much,” Sam said. “Always have.”
Dean’s back tensed, and Sam knew it was all about being afraid to respond, about letting go.
His eventual response was to drop to the bed beside Sam, shove his shirt up, and examine his ribs. Careful but probing fingers felt along the bones gently, ghosting along skin, pressing in above Sam’s liver. “Hurt?” he said.
“Ribs are a little sore,” Sam said. “Fell partly on my left, I think.”
“Nothing broken,” Dean said.
Sam knew damn well that Dean would have given him a good once over outside before he’d even woken up. This was the real check, the one that came after the field-medic routine that always came...well, in the field. Dean continued to palpitate his abdomen without comment, nothing but concentration on his face. Sam took it with aplomb until Dean rested an ear against his chest to listen.
It was a long minute that drew into several, and Sam rested one hand against the back of Dean’s head. He wanted to tangle his fingers in the slightly longer hair at his nape and let the tips of his fingers trail there, but he waited. Any contact was good, was a good sign. Was a little forgiveness.
Dean lifted his head and looked close in Sam’s eyes, acting like he was looking for signs of concussion. Sam knew better.
He moved stiffly when he got out of the car again. They were at a hotel in Roseville, something called the Orchid Suites. First floor so that he didn’t have to try and climb stairs.
Dean let him sleep but woke him every hour on the hour, and that got annoying so quickly that Sam threatened to fuck him up if he didn’t leave him alone. Dean ignored him and offered him water and Advil. Sam knew he’d leveled a few other choice insults in Dean’s direction, but when he woke the next morning, he didn’t remember them. He figured that was just as well.
He decided that the thing he missed most so far was milk. The powdered stuff just didn’t cut it. He ate dry cereal with Dean and didn’t bitch about it, making sure Dean saw him eat and knew he wasn’t nauseous. He’d picked up a good concussion or he wouldn’t have been knocked out, but he wasn’t really suffering many aftereffects.
He wanted to ask Dean how he thought they would eventually die – a fall, the flu, cancer, a blood clot. Even he knew that was a little too macabre, so he didn’t voice the question.
“The world didn’t really end,” he said instead.
Dean glanced up at him, popping another handful of Cheerios. “How you figure, Tonto?”
Sam shook his head. “Everything’s still here but people. Everything’s going to go on like normal, but without humans. The world is fine, just not how we’re used to it.”
Dean raised his eyebrows. “One way of looking at it.”
“Only way of looking at it.”
Dean shrugged. “I guess we’re extinct.”
Sam slanted a glance at him in amazement. It hadn’t occurred to him before, not really, not as a visceral reality. It was obvious, but he’d never been able to apply real understanding to the thought. With all the species on the endangered list, it was a foregone conclusion that it was all over when it got down to two. Especially two of the same sex.
“‘spose we better post a few ‘no hunting’ signs here and there,” Dean said, crunching Cheerios. He flicked one at Sam. “Think any other extinct species ever knew they were the last ones?”
Sam shook his head.
They stayed put for two days, until Dean was sure Sam was okay...at least physically. Sam was surprised at first that Dean was that lenient. When he remembered to add scared to the equation, it made better sense.
- October 13th
The second night they were there, he wrapped himself around his brother, head tucked under his chin, arms and legs creating a cage it would have been hard to escape from.
Dean didn’t try.
Knight’s Landing a few miles to the west went on the short list for the land, the access to constantly running water in the form of tributaries, and several newer homes that could easily be outfitted for solar when they needed it. Not just the right place, not yet, but a good backup.
Sam was stiff, but it wasn’t anything worse than he was used to, so he ignored it. The headache had gone away and Dean had quit waking him on a random basis, quit asking him if he was pissing blood or anything. Sam had made it fairly clear that if he started bleeding from any orifice, he’d share. Dean had reminded him that he’d been acting like he bled once a month anyway.
Sam sighed and made notes.
- October 15th
Sam didn’t dwell on the fact that it had been a full month since Moment Zero. They’d come a long way, but really had nothing to show for it yet. They were still trying to adjust and getting the messiest parts of that settled. Maybe they’d come a long way with each other, too, but Sam wasn’t sure there was anything to show for that, either. He wasn’t sure what the hell he was looking for.
Thinking about it too hard made him feel panic begin to well up again.
Trying to raise Dean on the radio in LA and not getting a response had been like day one all over again, with Bobby not answering his phone. He’d pressed the button over and over, thinking it had to be a mistake, Dean had put it down somewhere to look at something, Dean had accidentally turned it off after the last time he’d checked in. That had rapidly become Dean is lying somewhere on a staircase with his neck broken and then he’s gone where everyone else did. It had taken him awhile, after the whole thing was over, to realize that it hadn’t been the possibility of being alone that had driven him to run from street to street, screaming in terror. It was the possibility of a world without Dean.
Sam glanced up. Dean had his eyes on the road but his attention on Sam; Sam could always feel it, somehow.
“What’s going on? I can smell the smoke.”
“Nothing,” Sam said. “Just thinking about where to go next.”
If Dean picked up how loaded the statement was, he didn’t give any sign of it.
They were headed south again, toward Stockton. The weather was holding, partly cloudy with no hit of rain yet. There was a small bite to the air in the evenings, but nothing that warned of storms or a sudden turn to winter.
“So let’s hear it.”
Sam cleared his throat, picking up Dean’s scent again when he shifted. The place they’d stayed at the night before had put something in their soap and shampoo, and everything smelled like roses. Dean had mumbled about it in annoyance, but Sam remembered how the antique shop had smelled, and hadn’t been able to tease him about it.
Dean smelled like roses and warm leather, and a hint of aftershave. Sam didn’t remember what he tasted like, hadn’t really gotten much to go by anyway, but he suspected.
Why are we still shaving? What the hell’s the point? Sam remembered Dean postulating about it while shaving that morning, and he’d met Sam’s eyes in the mirror in the bathroom at an angle. Sam had been leaning against the doorway, never more than a few steps away. Sam had quit shaving right after the fall, and he knew it made him look older. He could see hints of his own father’s face in the reflection. Sooner or later Dean would probably want to cut his own hair, and Sam wondered if he’d let him do it or if maybe he could talk Dean out of it. He remembered Dean with bangs falling across his eyes when he’d been in high school, longer on the top and short in the back before he’d decided to keep it all short, all the time. Like their father.
Sam blinked. “Huh?”
“You gonna answer, or you gonna stare at me?”
Sam ran a hand over his face, trying to clear his head. He glanced down at the maps, trying to remember what the hell he had been thinking of saying. “Got two places I wanna look at, east of Stockton. Two reservoirs. They’re both far enough away from the foothills and any major town to be just what we’re looking for. Uh...Woodward, first. Then Modesto, further south. They’re big enough that we don’t have to worry about drought or anything.”
Dean drummed his fingers along the steering wheel, nodding.
“If we take the 4 out past Farmington, Woodward’s down Twenty-Six Mile Road,” Sam said. “Search that whole area, there’s gotta be something there we can use.”
Woodward Reservoir was surrounded on all sides with farmland. They spent the day checking the entire circumference, looking at farms and a couple of neighborhoods. It was more built up than either of them had expected.
Sam sat on a stump at the end of a driveway at one of the last farms they looked at that day, looking weary and feeling like if he closed his eyes he’d see nothing but fields and fields rolling by.
“Pesticides,” he said.
Dean squinted one eye open at him. He was lying in the grass near Sam’s stump. “Yeah?”
“With so much farmland on all sides, I gotta wonder how much runoff has made it into the reservoir, the groundwater, everywhere.”
“You don’t think we’re already full of all kinds of chemicals we shouldn’t be?” Dean said.
“That’s pretty much my point,” Sam said.
They were silent for a long moment. “Gotta call it a day now, anyway,” Dean said. “I don’t think I can stand.”
“Just stand,” Dean said. “We’re short one guy, if you wanna play Stooges, Sam.”
Sam proceeded to do a dead-on impression of Curly, woo-woo-woo, and then snorted when Dean convulsed with laughter in the grass. He’d hit just the right nerve at just the right time, and Dean howled with laughter, rolling onto one side and cracking up until Sam couldn’t help joining him.
God, it was good to laugh. So good.
They stayed at the Best Western in Oakdale. Oakdale was close, and it wasn’t as big as Modesto. Dean held to Sam’s wish to stay out of the bigger cities when they could avoid it. He knew it was the safest thing to do.
They chose the second floor and searched the place like they always had, keeping their guard up. They moved along the second floor, trying all the doors to see if any were already open, listening, becoming accustomed to the static sound of TVs and radios that had been left on at normal volumes.
Dean chose a corner room again, and they unloaded the car. It seemed like too much trouble to cook anything, they were both too tired, so they checked for soup and dried goods in the storage rooms in the kitchen.
“Not eating soup, ever again,” Dean said.
“I already told you, after a year or two, there won’t be any anyway,” Sam said, examining the shelves. “We’ll have to make our own.”
“Grab that, look....there,” Dean said, pointing. “You just have to add hot water to that.”
“Scalloped potatoes?” Sam said.
“Yeah, in the box. Hurry up, I’m starving.”
“Don’t order me around,” Sam said without any real offense.
“Don’t be such a slow little bitch,” Dean said. “What wine goes with scalloped potatoes?”
“Beer,” Sam said.
Sam found frozen vegetables to go with the potatoes, and threatened Dean with bodily harm if he didn’t eat them. Dean opted for obscene gestures to let Sam know how he felt about that, but he ate them without comment. They sat in the bar afterward for a little while, maps spread out along the counter between them. They passed a bottle of Glenlivet between them periodically as they chose their next stops and tried to narrow down the best areas.
They left the maps on the counters some time around eleven. Dean bolted the doors to the front entrance and left a group of chairs in front of it for good measure.
Sam kicked his boots off at the foot of the bed when Dean came back in the room. He was buzzed enough that he leaned his knees against the bed to get his left boot off. He was thinking about pulling his shirt off, but startled when he opened his eyes again because of how close Dean was.
He turned, and Dean got right in his face, but there wasn’t anything else with it that Sam was used to, when similar motions had been made so many other times in his life. No flared nostrils, no eyes widened with intensity, no aggression or demand. Just Dean, almost-touching, head tilted slightly down like he meant to press his face into Sam’s shoulder.
“I’m not exactly the hugging type,” he said, so low that Sam had to lean in a little further to hear.
They stood almost chest to chest, heads bowed in toward each other, breathing the same air.
“Pretty sure you’ve noticed,” Dean said.
Sam didn’t move. He was listening as close as he’d ever listened to anything, using his whole body to do it.
“I’d never...do anything to you,” Dean said. “Say stupid shit to you, pop you one occasionally when you’re being an asshole, yeah. You and me, we’re it. Pretty sure you noticed that, too.” He paused and made a motion as if he meant to step away. Sam leaned with him unconsciously, all of it so slight that anyone watching might not have seen any of it.
“None of this is what we planned,” Dean said. “So...it’s already...I mean, people have to touch each other. And stuff.”
Sam held still, trying to keep from letting Dean off the hook by jumping in.
“Not. Anything weird, I mean. Weirder. If you have to...hey, nobody goes their whole lives without some contact. Right? Sure.”
“What’re you trying to say?” Sam said in a near whisper.
Dean scratched at the back of his neck. “No fucking idea,” he said.
Sam grabbed Dean’s head between both hands, spanning it from jaw to crown, twisting Dean’s face up and kissing him open-mouthed.
Dean startled, probably more out of long-standing internal controls than anything else, and Sam slid one hand around the back of his head while trapping him against the wall with his hips. That was so much better than he’d expected; pressure in the right places, aggression providing him with the means to experience something from a whole different angle. There was always a hint of holding back with the opposite sex, even when he’d been pretending not to; he had never been unaware of his own size and strength. Then and there with Dean, it finally didn’t matter. He had a chance to tip Dean’s face up, cradle his head and force it back without worrying about hurting him, use his weight to confine while broadcasting intent. There was enough muscle structure and bone under him to bear it easily, and the idea alone made him grind his hips into Dean’s at the same time he forced his tongue past his brother’s teeth.
Dean made a sound in the back of his throat that sounded like a mixture of need and despair. In the end, they were one and the same.
Sam never intended that they end up against some wall, with consent as in question as it had been the first time. Sanity crept back in by a degree, and he meant to pull away except that Dean was suddenly kissing him back and Jesus Christ he knew how to kiss. Sam was the one doing the pressing but Dean owned his mouth, tongue along teeth and hard palate, fingers digging in along his ribs, knee rising between his legs and providing easy leverage, but Sam wanted a lot more than just another grind session.
They had the time and he was of a mind.
He arched his hips against Dean’s thigh but moved one hand from his head to fumble at the fly of Dean’s jeans, fingers still nimble enough to flip the button out of place and yank at the zipper. When he reached in and curled those fingers around Dean’s erection-in-progress, Dean tensed and gasped and tore his mouth free as he slammed his head against the wall behind.
He mouthed along Dean’s newly exposed neck, unable to keep from nibbling warm, smooth skin, tightening his grip and moving his thumb in small, slow circles. Dean hardened in his hand, breath close against Sam’s skin, tense between Sam and the wall like he wasn’t sure what to do for once in his life.
Sam jerked his hips against Dean’s thigh again, warning and reminder, and Dean’s hands were shaking when he went for Sam’s fly. Sam let him get as far as the zipper before he used his free hand to yank Dean’s head back down for a bruising kiss. He let go long enough to tug Dean’s jeans and boxers as well as his own out of the way, and then he gripped them both in one large hand. That time it felt like Dean was pulling the breath right out of his lungs when he gasped, and Sam exhaled into him in response.
Dean shook against Sam as he stroked them both, pulling away for air, finally resting his forehead against Sam’s and moving with him. Dean’s hands at the back of his neck, along his shoulders, gripping his shirt. He felt dizzy and realized he was holding his breath, then breathed in time with Dean. He didn’t want it to be over, didn’t want to move any faster, but he couldn’t help it. Sweat and precome made it easier, slicked the way, and he came long before he meant to when Dean dropped his hands and cupped Sam’s ass. He lost the rhythm, barely coherent enough to stroke himself through it much less get Dean there, but it was enough; he felt Dean jerk and pulse in his hand, felt the spill of it, the huff of breath on his face as Dean came.
Too boneless to do more, Sam leaned into Dean, face tucked into the crook of his neck. Dean did nothing to dislodge him.
“You feel better?” Dean said finally, breathless.
There was just enough humor in his voice to bolster Sam.
“Yeah,” Sam said.
There was a long pause. Then Dean added, “Me too.”
They awoke to a thud that they felt in the floor.
Sam rolled one way and Dean the other, guns off nightstands and in steady hands, eyes open wide in the dark. They each stayed down, crouched on the floor on either side of the bed. They were aware of each other and the dimensions of the room, the denseness of the dark outside, their proximity to the door and windows.
A second, more muted boom was audible as well as felt in the floor, and they both identified it as an explosion.
Dean stood first, waving Sam down, knowing there was enough ambient light from the windows to make him out by and knowing Sam would be looking right at him.
He checked the windows. Nothing was visible at first, not from there.
“Propane tank?” Sam said softly.
“Could be,” Dean said. “Gotta get up higher, see if there’s anything going on. Can’t tell where it came from.”
They shrugged into their jeans so they could tuck guns away, then headed to the upper floors. No roof access, but they went to the top and broke one of the rooms open, then got out on the balcony.
There was a dull orange glow pushing against the sky, miles to the northwest. Stockton was burning. They were probably hearing a gas station going up, or any number of fertilizer plants that tended to be set in an agricultural community.
They watched for awhile.
“Think it’ll come this way?” Dean said.
“Think it’ll take days to burn itself out,” Sam said. “But there’s so much farmland between us and Stockton, I doubt it’ll come this far.”
They packed up anyway, and headed further south in the dark. It was only twenty minutes to Waterford, close to where they wanted to search when it got light anyway.
Sam checked his watch. Sunrise was a couple of hours off.
They found a gas station and Dean filled the car while Sam went inside to make coffee. The carafes had long since gone dry on the ever-hot plates, and all but one had shattered. He picked his way over the glass and poked around in the back for an extra carafe. He didn’t trust the one that was left. He picked it up and looked at it, at the remaining flakes of burnt, month-old coffee in the bottom. Then he took it outside and drew an arm back, pitching it as far as it would go. It arced away, briefly catching the red and green light from the sign above the doors. He heard it smash on the pavement of the business next door, the office of a storage unit facility.
Dean looked at him over the roof of the car, eyebrows as high as they ever got. “Whatcha doing?”
“Don’t worry,” Sam said. “It was decaf.” He felt laughter begin to bubble almost beyond reason, and he went back inside before it could start.
He made coffee, and shut the other hot plates off. It was probably how the fire in Stockton had started. He had a feeling they wanted Waterford to stick around.
Dean came inside, one eyebrow still raised like he wasn’t sure whether Sam was going to be hurling anything else. He grabbed a Mountain Dew out of the cooler that ran along the back wall, then walked along the aisles, perusing the food choices. Sam hoisted himself up to sit on the counter, wincing a little at the twinge in his ribs and back. He watched Dean examine a package of beef jerky.
He wondered if he should have felt more awkward about the night before. More than a month earlier, maybe. Maybe he’d always had enough reason, enough dependence, enough need before, but not a setting that made it....what? More reasonable? Acceptable? All relative?
He smirked at the unintentional pun.
Dean squinted at him. “You worry me, Sam.”
Sam shrugged. “What the hell else is new?”
The sun was just coming up when they saw the Modesto Reservoir for the first time.
Dean was caffeinated enough to be annoying, air-drumming along with an old Deep Purple tape and making Sam think about poking him in the ribs. They’d been on Yosemite Boulevard out of Waterford for less than two minutes when Dean had begun a really horrible imitation of Yosemite Sam, swinging so far wide of Mel Blanc as to be nearly unrecognizable. Ya better say yer prayers, ya flea-bitten varmaint, I'm a-gonna blow ya to smithereenies!
The pearl-gray light stealing over the water made Dean snap the radio off and pull over. They got out of the car and breathed in the cool dew-sweet morning air, the sky crystal clear enough to make their eyes water. There were few artificial lights out there, and the stars winked overhead in the bow of sky. They both stood shoulder to shoulder without moving, each unwilling to break the silence even as the east began bleeding a rose-indigo color. It was the first time that the silence had seemed like anything more than a death knell. Out there, it was a blessing.
When the first of the sun breached the rim of the world, they left Yosemite for the aptly named Reservoir Road and headed north, getting a sense of the size of the area. There were several farm plots visible to the west, but the immediate terrain was spare, dry, and fairly flat on that side. There were a couple of tree-dotted island out in the middle that rose only feet above the water line in places. The northern most point of Reservoir Road ended about a mile and a half later. They got out of the car again, and Sam consulted the maps.
“No road along the eastern side,” he said. “Just south.”
Dean nodded. “Where do you wanna start?”
“Anywhere,” Sam said. “This whole area...it looks good. Doesn’t it? Really good.”
“Lots we can do with this,” Dean said.
“Plenty of it’s been diverted to the south and west,” Sam said. “Kind of downhill. Lots of the farms west of here could be everything we need.”
Dean nodded again. He was eyeing the Sierras to the distant east, not nearly close enough to cause them a problem if wildfires came through. The feeling in his chest and throat was hope, and he wasn’t able to completely shove it back down.
They headed back south and got on Yosemite, and the tension in the car was more excitement than anything else.
They looked at three small farms and four larger homes before noon, checking them carefully for what was already just right and what needed to be done. Two of the farms would be completely self sufficient, water-wise, and one of the homes was already set up for solar, one whole southern wall and part of the roof. They ate lunch at a small diner, cheeseburgers that Sam thawed from the freezer.
“I want fries,” Dean said.
“I’m not fucking around with the deep fryer, Dean,” Sam said.
“I’ll do it, then,” Dean said. “I haven’t had fries in, like, a month.”
“The oil in there is at least a month old,” Sam said, standing with arms folded, bracing himself in the doorway of the kitchen and not letting Dean in.
“I’ll change the oil,” Dean said. “Easier than doing it in a car. I worked in a restaurant for about three months when I was in high school, I know how it goes. Get the hell out of the way.”
Sam sighed and backed away. “You get burned, I’ll be pissed.”
“I live in terror of pissing you off, Sam,” Dean said.
The fries were good. Sam didn’t realize how much he’d missed them.
Somewhere around one, they headed a little further south and west, as far as Hickman. North again, to an orchard just off a waterway. The home set back behind the lemon and orange trees got all of its water from the reservoir in addition to irrigation for the trees. Vegetable garden in the back, no solar. But the whole southern side of the house was in the open, so it wouldn’t be that hard. Sam marked the map. It felt like they were close to something, like if they just looked a little further, something would click.
“Are we being too picky?” Sam said when they headed a little further east again, a couple of miles south and west of the reservoir.
“Doesn’t feel like it,” Dean said.
“This is pretty much it, huh,” Sam said. “Somewhere around here.”
They stayed between the waterway and a manmade canal south of Yosemite, tracking it all the way back into Waterford. To be anything less than thorough at that point would be insane. More small farms and private homes, orchards, a couple of small businesses, all of it worth looking at and evaluating. When it began to get too dark around seven, they called it a day and headed back to the middle of Waterford and a B&B because damn if Waterford didn’t even have a motel. It was better than crashing in a house, though, surrounded by someone else’s life. Pancakes and bacon, again, and Dean vowed they’d hit a farm and find fresh eggs sometime soon.
They went to bed without a word.
There was nothing awkward about it. That was even stranger than the things that had happened that should have made it awkward in the first place.
They were both asleep too quickly to really care.
Eight square miles around Paulsell and Cooperstown, south of the reservoir. All the way south to Turlock Lake. North, up Crabtree Road and as close to the whole eastern side of the reservoir as they could get. Seventeen houses and six farms altogether. After three it began to rain, finally.
Dean was ready to settle.
“Any of this will do,” he said. “Just...let’s pick something. If it’s just for the winter, okay, and maybe we can look around later. I just...”
“We’re tired,” Sam said softly.
Dean sighed. “Not giving up or anything.”
“I know. Let’s call it an early day. We covered a lot of ground.”
“Where – “
“Back to Waterford,” Sam said. “Kind of liked that little place.”
Dean didn’t argue, but trailed along for once. There was no disappointment or impatience in any of it, just flat out exhaustion. He didn’t even care about eating.
Sam wandered around a little; the house small enough to make it seem like he wasn’t even really leaving the room. He sat in the sitting room in an overstuffed chair and watched it rain for a while, thinking that if he went in to bed, Dean wasn’t going to get any rest. And not because Sam was restless.
It was like a part of him was awake again, not just the part of him that missed pleasure but the part of him that missed Dean, and everything Dean was. The part of him that had watched Dean closely as a teenager and been confused about it, the part of him that had been Dean’s closest confidant and united front against parental authority. They had been going at a breakneck pace for at least two years since he’d come back from school, spending most of it terrified or waiting for the other shoe to drop.
All gone, now.
In the absence of all else, there wasn’t anything keeping him from his fascination with someone who was constantly saying I’d do anything for you.
Sam wanted to know how far anything went. He just didn’t want to lose Dean in the process.
It’s not like you’re going to lose me.
Sam never wanted to know what that was like.
When they were done searching, when they finally settled down for maybe the first time in their lives, not running or hunting or counting on split second decisions; when they were finally caught in day to day life with only each other for company, how long were they going to tolerate each other?
Hell for you might be getting stuck with me. But my Hell doesn’t have you in it.
Dean had meant every word. The bond they held went far deeper than it did for most brothers, for most people, and Sam never doubted it would hold. But without a final goal or a desperate need to protect one another, without something to unite against, what would keep them together aside from a fear of being alone?
Even he knew when he was overthinking things. He went to bed, and when he stretched out, Dean reached for him without waking, twining fingers in his hair.
I love you so much. Always have.
Sam had meant every word, too.
“Maybe the insects will take over, like a lot of people always thought,” Dean said.
Dean had bounced back from the drudgery that the nonstop searching had become. He was thinking out loud again. Sam had begun to find an appreciation for it that he never would have imagined.
“Well, the cockroaches won’t, at least,” Sam said, looking down into his coffee. They had the front door open and were out in the sitting room, letting cool, damp air in. “They like it warm. And we’ve been keeping them warm and fed for a long time. They’re all gonna go to tropical areas, sooner or later. If they’re not already gone.”
“Good,” Dean said. “I fuckin’ hate cockroaches.” He paused. “Maybe rats, too?”
“Yup,” Sam said. “They were all here because people were. Got nobody to feed ‘em, now.”
“Cats’ll eat ‘em,” Dean said. “Only thing they’re good for anyway.”
Sam decided not to ask Dean which creature he was maligning more with that statement.
“By the time the aliens – the real ones – actually land, or something else decides to take over, everything’ll be gone,” Dean said. “The books, everything. Nobody’ll know we were even here, if enough time goes by.” His tone was offhand, but beneath was the same thing Sam had heard enough and thought enough to recognize immediately: all for nothing. “Except maybe...well, the pyramids have already been around for five thousand years or something, and scrolls and stuff in the desert. Cave paintings. That stuff’ll stay around. And with our luck, one random goddamn Harlequin bodice-ripper.”
“Well...every radio and TV broadcast that ever hit the airwaves made it out into space,” Sam said. “They’ll go on forever, at least.”
“Yeah, I know,” Dean said. When Sam gave him a surprised glance, Dean added, “I can read, you know. When you left for school, you left all your fucking Carl Sagan books behind and he talked about that. Not all of his stuff sat well with me, but I liked them.” He paused to change his posture, sliding down in his chair a little, trying to look casual. “He was brilliant, but he didn’t shove it on anybody like most people do. Did. He didn’t run around trying to convince anybody he was right about everything. He just wanted things to turn out well for humanity. Turned out great, didn’t it?”
Sam didn’t respond for a long moment. He looked at his hands, and finally said, “‘If you want to make an apple pie from scratch...’”
“‘You must first create the universe’,” Dean finished. “Yeah. Great, Sam, now all I want is apple pie.”
“It could be worse,” Dean said. “Instead of vanishing...it could have been like people never existed at all. But. We were here. Humans existed. It all happened, and nobody can take that away.”
Sam nodded and was careful not to look up. Dean meant mom and dad were here, Jess was here, Bobby was here. The things that had happened had mattered. They didn’t anymore, but they had.
“I don’t wanna go out in the rain,” Sam said. “We’ve got time.”
Dean shrugged. “What do you wanna do?”
“Talk to you about shit we agree and disagree on for the rest of our lives,” Sam said.
Dean blinked. “You’re bein’ weird again, aren’t you.”
“Yeah, I am,” Sam said.
They watched all three Rush Hour movies back to back on the DVD player, sitting on the bed together with microwave popcorn and assorted crap Dean had taken from the gas station. Sam hadn’t realized that Dean had an appreciation for Jackie Chan that bordered on the ridiculous.
“You wanna do stunts like that, don’t you,” Sam said.
“Yeah. Fireman, cop, and stuntman, those were my top three when I was a kid.”
“So, like, saving the world from evil all the time wasn’t enough,” Sam said.
Dean rolled his eyes. “Shaddap.”
“I’ve seen you do crazier shit than Jackie Chan,” Sam said. “And he practiced all this stuff, over and over, and got to choreograph it. You just do stuff off the top of your head.”
Dean quit chewing a mouthful of popcorn and shifted to look at him full on. “You okay?”
“What, I’m trying to tell you how it is,” Sam said.
“You hit your head a lot harder than I thought when you fell off that roof,” Dean said, turning back to the movie. But he looked absurdly pleased.
Jackie Chan was kung-fuing the hell out of a bunch of bad guys on a yacht. Chris Tucker was getting his ass kicked by a girl.
Pretty good way to spend a day.
The rain let up. Sam went out and checked the Geiger counters again. It had stayed in the back seat of the Impala, set to warn them as they drove around. They were still silent. He checked the juice left in the batteries and knew it was still fine. He wanted the area to be safe, and stay that way. He knew they were where they were meant to be. They just hadn’t pinpointed the exact spot, yet.
“Maybe we’re trying too hard,” Dean said. “Maybe it’s simpler than we think. We haven’t tried all the way around the reservoir. The southern part.”
He’d made muffins with a mix he found in the pantry, and some frozen blueberries. They sat on the steps out front eating them with coffee. A damp chill had set in behind the rain, but it wasn’t enough to deter them from being outside.
“Sounds good,” Sam said. It was everything he could do not to reach out and grab the back of Dean’s neck or swipe a hand against one of the azaleas next to the stairs and rub rainwater down his shirt. He would have, before. Now he was afraid it wasn’t enough.
He wanted to talk about it, but knew Dean would shy away. He’d be right to.
They packed the car and headed off again like they always had.
They got back onto Reservoir Road and passed the starting point of the culvert they’d been crisscrossing over while looking at the outlying farms. There were camping areas in closer to the reservoir, boat launches, a small store for the last-minute things campers had managed to forget. There were orchards to their right once they got headed east. Sam couldn’t tell what they were, from there, but it would be easy enough to guess citrus and avocado.
They spent a good part of the day looking at the cabins and camping hookups along the water, checking out the small market, having a look at the two small farms that kept the orchards. Oranges, lemons and avocados, like Sam had suspected. Not much left on the trees that hadn’t been picked, or stolen by passing wildlife.
It was getting dark earlier by the day, reminding them that they didn’t have much time until winter set in. It wouldn’t be severe, but it would be better if they were settled in somewhere with a plan.
The road straightened out of the long curve it had been in for about a mile, and driveways started showing up along with grassy areas and landscaping.
Dean slowed up to look. There was a mailbox at the end of one unpaved drive, standard issue, with the flag up. Mail ready for pickup, but it would never get there.
“Doesn’t hurt to look,” Sam said. “We’ve seen everything else around here.”
They followed the driveway until a house came into view, small and two story and offwhite with a tile roof and a detached garage. It was tucked into a stand of trees that didn’t overshadow or touch it. There was an overgrown garden in the front. The front door faced the driveway and was level with the ground. The grass of the lawn had gone brown from lack of water, but it still looked like a regular middle class lawn all the same. No white picket fence, no swingset. Just a small but attractive home with enough land around it to do whatever they needed to, and close enough to the reservoir to be hooked up to it, if they wanted to.
They got out of the car and approached. Nothing barked or jumped out at them. The front door was closed. There were lights on inside, just visible through the windows. When they circled around to the right of the house, there was a side entrance with a small deck. The yard inclined slightly along that side, just a small hill sloping up to a wider, open area of yard leading back to the road. The orchards were just visible from there. That entire side of the roof - the southern facing side - was covered with solar panels.
They stood and looked at the house for a moment without saying anything.
Sam glanced out across the yard and thought about how isolated it was...or at least it looked that way.
It hit him again.
Everyone was gone but him and Dean. Everyone they’d ever known, everyone they’d ever heard of; gone. Not as if they’d never been, but gone nonetheless, and the idea was so big and so impossible for him to wrap his mind around just then that he stopped and gaped at the house like he’d never seen one before.
Dean’s voice sounded like it was underwater. Sam thought for a moment that he might actually fall down. He sat down in the grass and waited for the dizziness to pass, never realizing he was bringing it on himself by hyperventilating.
He was numb by the time Dean’s hand landed on his back, skin tingling and stinging with too much oxygen and adrenaline, head buzzing with the enormity of being last, with the idea that one of them would die sooner or later and there’d just be one, left. Left behind.
He felt Dean’s hand on the back of his head, grabbing a loose handful of hair, shoving his head forward and holding it down, making him try and put it between his knees. Dean was saying okay, okay and Sam barely heard it over the ringing in his ears.
The world cleared by degrees, and he found himself nearly in Dean’s lap out on the grass. Dean was rocking him, or trying to, and it would have been ridiculous if Sam hadn’t felt like it was the only solid thing left. Dean had a white-knuckled grip on his clothes, as if he was trying to keep them both from flying apart.
“It’s okay,” Dean said. “It’s okay.”
Sam tried to lift his head and couldn’t. It fit just fine in the crook of Dean’s neck anyway.
“Sam? Say something.”
He felt Dean huff a sigh that sounded like part relief and part annoyance. “Was that...did you see something?”
“No,” Sam said. “It wasn’t a vision, or anything. I’m okay. I just...” He breathed for a moment. “Freaked out.”
He felt Dean nod.
“This is hugging, you know,” Sam said.
Dean made the same impatient sound. “No. It’s not.”
They laid in the grass until it began to get dark. Sam moved first, stiff from the cold ground, offering Dean a hand up. Dean smacked him away and brushed himself off.
They looked at the porch, examining the stairs and railings, gauging age and weathering and sturdiness. The boards held without creaks or soft spots when they ascended the three low stairs, Sam with a single step. It was slightly shadowed on one side by a monkey puzzle tree, making it seem more like a fort. There was enough room for the two chairs, the small metal table, the barbecue. The back door was painted white, solid core, brass knob, single pane of glass set at chest height. Curtains kept them from seeing inside. It was locked, but it took Dean less than a minute to pick it. There was no deadbolt.
Stone floors in muted desert colors, entertainment system to the right against the wall, open door leading to another room or more just to the left of that. Recessed lighting set to low as if someone had left it on during the night or just after they’d come out in the morning. Granite fireplace to the left of that, and then the floor opened out into a kitchen with a long, low counter and hardwood cupboards above. The furniture was sparse but carefully chosen to match, butter-colored leather sofa and recliner. The front windows to the right of the recliner were floor-to-ceiling and looked out onto the road that led to the reservoir.
Tile floors in the kitchen; wall-length pantry set into the back of it with hardwood sliding doors. Shelves of dry and canned goods. Appliances that were all still in good working order. Neither of them wanted to attempt opening the refrigerator, not yet. Dean would rather have faced another Wendigo rather than get stuck with whatever was growing in there.
There were a set of cat dishes next to the sink, empty. Kitty had likely vacated the premises once he or she realized no one was left. Hopefully it had been an outside cat and was off eating birds and mice somewhere.
They passed through the kitchen and into some kind of combination sitting/formal dining room with windows that looked out onto the orchards below. Carpeted stairs led into the dark above.
They backtracked through the kitchen. There was mail both opened and unopened on the counter, and they didn’t even glance at it. They didn’t want to know who had been there.
The door between the fireplace and the entertainment center led to a small laundry room with a small bathroom across; another doorway let them walk through into an office. There was a large chest freezer set against the wall just inside the office. In the middle of the floor was a treadmill. There was a desk against the far wall with a fax machine and a phone on it, an inbox, a scattering of typical desk detritus.
They both paused to listen. Then Dean started turning lights on so he could check things more closely.
“How old?” Sam said.
“Not more than five years,” Dean said. “Wiring’s continuous off one box, ‘cause there was no blink out in the main room when I screwed with the lights in here. Gotta look at the plumbing.”
“Upstairs, first,” Sam said.
Sam flipped the switch at the bottom of the stairs and they both looked up without trepidation. It was a fairly narrow staircase, walled in on both sides, utilitarian and purposely built as another load bearing wall. Earthquake-country common sense. Family photos lined the wall to the right, and they were both careful not to examine them.
There was a bathroom to the left of the landing at the top; two bedrooms, one straight on and one to the right. A door led through the bathroom into the master bedroom. King sized bed, unmade, huge walk-in closet, skylights. Shoes scattered along the floor, both men’s and women’s. A newspaper, coffee cups, a flat panel TV sitting atop a low armoire opposite the bed. When Sam pulled at the curtains, he got a view of the reservoir.
“Nice,” Dean said.
The second bedroom looked like it had always been a guest room, never some departing college student’s or an elderly parent’s. It was obvious that it hadn’t been used in some time. There was framed art on the walls that neither looked at close enough to make anything of.
Dean started with the upstairs bathroom, looking at the floor around the toilet and at the pipes under the sink, then rattling the frosted door on the small shower. Sam watched without comment, knowing it wasn’t as obvious as it looked. He wasn’t just poking around to see if the plumbing was okay. He was looking for signs of a do-it-yourself job. Just because the permits had been purchased and the city had maybe signed off on the place didn’t mean everything had been done by someone who had a clue about it. Dean referred to houses that had been renovated or remodeled by amateurs as Time-Lifers after the series of home repair books that had been popular over the years. He’d always said it with an audible sneer, and Sam had found it impossible to even think the words without the same inflection whenever he ran into one of the those books in a library.
Dean poked at the shower tile, looking for soft spots. Then he eyed the ceiling. Apparently satisfied, he headed for the stairs.
The other bathroom got the same once-over, with toilet-flushing for good measure. Dean turned the faucet in the sink on as far as it would go, both taps, and looked at the water pressure. It was good, so he shut them off again and went looking for the water heater. It was in a closet in the office. It was bolted into the wall at middle and top, set up off the floor on a pallet. Dean pursed his lips and looked at the walls of the office.
“Breaker box’s in the pantry,” Sam said.
Dean was not hard to read.
He made a beeline for the kitchen again, into the pantry, flipping the little metal door open and looking at the breakers. They were carefully labeled, but that wasn’t what he cared about. He dug an EMF meter out of his jacket and aimed it at the box. The meter burbled a little, but not much; the box wasn’t bleeding out any more energy than absolutely necessary. He tucked the meter away and went out the side door wordlessly.
“We could do this when it’s daylight,” Sam said, following him into the yard.
Dean waved him off, so Sam followed along with a sigh.
They made a circuit of the house, and found a solar array on its own stand about fifty feet to the south. It looked like someone’s strange idea of a sculpture, four panels tilting skyward on a seven-foot cement stand. In the growing dark, it was hard to see whether the leader lines were all underground.
“They’ve got a battery bank somewhere,” Dean said. “For cloudy days. Gather all the solar they can when the sun is out, keep the batteries charged. Then when it’s raining or they need the lights on all night for some reason, they can have it. Awesome.”
“Insulation’s gotta be top notch, then, too,” Sam said. “Cool in summer, warm in winter, so they wouldn’t have to use so much juice on AC.”
“Yahtzee,” Dean said. “Nice set up. Just gotta find the batteries. Gotta be able to fix or replace this stuff if there’s a problem, and for that I just need to see what it looks like while it’s running smooth.”
Out behind the house was a big metal tank under the trees with a series of large, black plastic cylinders attached to it with PVC piping and fenced to keep animals away. The piping got within about twenty yards of the house before it vanished underground.
They both stared at it for a long moment. “Backup water?” Sam said.
“Bobby’s got one of these,” Dean said, and there was a little awe in his voice. “Hooked up to the stream above his house? I saw it once when we were kids. It’s a filtration system. They’re pulling all their water off the reservoir, filtering it right here. Charcoal and sand or gravel or something. They’re not hooked up to city water at all. So it doesn’t matter what happens to the power or the dam or the goddamn city water plants. They’re totally set up with everything.”
“Short list?” Sam said.
“Fuck it, this is it,” Dean said. “Don’t you think so? Dude, look at this place.”
Sam felt absurdly pleased for a moment that Dean liked the house, even though he hadn’t found it or held any particular personal stake in that one piece of property.
“Let’s look at it again in the morning,” Sam said. “In the daylight. Make sure we haven’t missed anything.”
“You trying to tell me something?” Dean said, turning to face him fully. “You did have a vision or something when we first got here, didn’t you.”
“Was I making noises and grabbing at my head?” Sam said. “No. I’m not lying about it, it wasn’t a vision. I just...never mind.”
“Sam,” Dean said with exaggerated patience, “there’s no one else for you to talk to. So if you’re gonna be falling down the stairs or rolling around on the lawn because you hate the place that much, say so now. I mean, you’re already banned from the roof.”
Sam sighed. “Ever occur to you I’m not used to thinking of one place as home? I didn’t live in the same place the entire time I was at Stanford, Dean. Me and Jess got our own apartment our junior year. It’s like...I don’t know. It’s like the end of something. Not that that’s bad, but...it’s still the end of something.”
“Like you didn’t want to keep wandering forever, but when you could stop it was as if you didn’t know how,” Dean said.
Sam gaped at him, barely able to see him in the dark.
“Oooh,” Dean said, wiggling his fingers in the air. “Insight. Wow, Sam, can you imagine?” He walked past Sam and toward the side door again, shoulder-checking him without much force as he went.
Any contact was welcome.
They chose porkchops out of the freezer simply because there was applesauce in the pantry. Dean thawed the chops in the microwave while Sam peeled potatoes. Dean messed with the stereo and snorted derisively at the CD collection, finally choosing some soft-rock compilation. He groaned aloud when Hall and Oates came on.
They ate in the kitchen to the soothing soft rock sounds of Gary Wright and Christopher Cross.
“We’ll get our own CD’s,” Sam said. “Maybe I can introduce you to something besides classic rock.”
“There is nothing else,” Dean said. “I don’t want any of your top 40 teeny-bopper shit.”
Sam slammed his fork down. “Oh my God, you don’t even know what the hell I like to listen to. You don’t even know what the hell top 40 is, either.”
“I know enough,” Dean said. “I accidentally turned the dial on the radio the wrong way once, and ran into all that Britney Spears bullshit. And Fall Down Boy or whatever.”
Sam shook his head and went back to eating. “We gotta talk.”
They took the comforters off the beds and spread them out on the floor in the dining room to make a bed of them. They didn’t want to sleep in someone else’s bed. They’d slept in a million motels across a million miles, but those beds had never belonged to anyone; everything in the house had been chosen by and for specific people who likely wouldn’t have left if they’d had a choice. It seemed disrespectful, like stealing from the dead, whether anyone was dead or not.
Sam rolled them both into a top comforter, hauling Dean back against his chest without waiting to see if there’d be resistance. He tucked them together like they’d been the night so early on when Dean had been so cold and unable to sleep, chest to Dean’s back and knees fitting to his, listening to him breathe. Dean wasn’t a ragdoll against him but didn’t put up any kind of a fight, so Sam took it for the good sign it was and closed his eyes.
He wasn’t sure if he heard something, or if Dean shifted in his sleep, or what; but his eyes were open and he found himself listening hard to the same silence that had made his ears ring loud for a month.
Dean lifted his head and braced himself up on his elbows. They didn’t share a glance or acknowledge each other; they didn’t have to. They were both looking at the window when a long shadow passed it.
Sam went forward and up out of the blankets; Dean went to the side and stayed low, all the motions compact and fast without making more than a whisper of getting upright. Guns in hand, Sam went to the window and stayed to one side; Dean went into the hallway in a low crouch. Sam watched for further movement in the yard, and Dean stayed below the windows in the kitchen, waiting to see if anything would come close to the doors.
They waited for several minutes, listening and watching, and when nothing materialized, Sam joined Dean near the front door. They shared a glance, then Dean slowly undid the locks and turned the knob all the way, waiting to pull on the door until he could be sure there was nothing right on the other side of it.
He opened it a crack and listened, testing the cooler air that flowed in, waiting for movement. When nothing happened, he opened it a little further, then froze. Sam could see the flash of amazement in his eyes before Dean swung the door all the way open.
There was a horse of some dark color in the yard, snuffling around in the grass.
Sam huffed a half-laugh of relief. The horse ignored them.
“Here’s the pony you always wanted, Sam,” Dean said. “He’s all yours.” He leaned over a little and looked again. “Yep. He.”
“What’re we gonna do with a horse?” Sam said.
“Survey the back forty when we don’t wanna waste the gas using the car,” Dean said. “Round up chickens. Braid his tail and tell him all your big, girly wishes. Shit, I don’t care. I’m going back to bed.”
He walked away from the door and headed into the back again.
Sam watched the horse mouth at the grass in the yard for a moment. He clucked his tongue at it, and it twitched ears at him but didn’t pay much attention otherwise.
Sam shook his head, closed the door, and went back to bed.
“I don’t want to leave here,” Sam said.
Dean nodded. “Okay.”
Sam caught Dean sleepy and only partially awake. Tousled hair and sleepy eyes, all the sharp lines softened for a few choice moments. They laid in the comforters as dawn crept in, facing each other, and Sam wanted the chance to stare without getting accused of being weird. Didn’t dare touch; not quite yet.
Dean nodded again and blinked. “Yeah. Feels like...I dunno.”
“Home,” Sam said.
Dean didn’t nod that time, but Sam watched his throat work, caught the quick sidelong glance. He remembered their father saying I want Dean to have a home an eternity ago and had felt Dean’s eyes on him then, too. They were home to each other; at least that.
Dean closed his eyes again for a long moment. “Lots to do, then, if we’re gonna move in.”
“The bed,” Sam said.
“And the furniture, sheets, towels, all that,” Dean said. “If it’s gonna be ours, it all has to be ours.”
Sam smiled a little. “Okay. We can make sure we’re stocked up, too.”
“Get you a hobby,” Dean said. “Like knitting or something.”
“You want me to make you a scarf?” Sam said.
“Yeah,” Dean said.
They went back in to Waterford and looked around. One supermarket, a few small clothing stores, no actual furniture stores.
They headed west into Modesto instead, found the place still standing, and went shopping.
Easier to replace the mattress in the master bedroom than the whole bed, so that was easy enough to rectify; finding a truck to start loading stuff into wasn’t hard, either. They found a rental place and snagged the keys to one of the midsize trucks.
The first department store they passed was a Macy’s.
Dean thought back and realized he’d never so much as been in one before.
Replacing the essentials was easy; they did that all the time, in grocery stores or truck stops or a Goodwill, socks and t shirts and jeans. They weren’t really going to need much more than that. They were just going to be comfortable. It wasn’t like they were going to suddenly try and outfit themselves with unnecessary luxuries just because they could. They weren’t built that way.
They replaced their jackets and picked up extra boots and waited for someone to come running out to yell at them.
Dean reminded Sam twice more that it wasn’t looting or stealing when there was no one left for it all to belong to.
He ignored the fact that Sam kept staring at him like he was thinking of doing something to him.
“You wanna keep the dishes?” Sam said. “We can just wash ‘em anyway.”
“No,” Dean said. “Somebody else’s stuff.”
“Okay,” Sam said, “but then you gotta realize that means we’re here picking out dishes and silverware. Together.”
Dean frowned at him. “You have to put it like that. Don’t you.”
“Just telling it like it is.”
“Don’t be picking out a china pattern,” Dean said. “Understand?”
They settled on Fiesta Ware in burgundy and dark blue and because it wasn’t girly, and they could agree on the colors. Partly. Sam kept trying to explain that the colors were actually called cinnabar and cobalt, Dean responded that to people with actual testosterone in their bodies, they were just red and blue.
Dean picked out the towels; huge and fluffy and expensive back when money had still existed. He picked two complementing colors of blue, and Sam didn’t comment, just picked out washcloths and hand towels to match.
“Silk sheets,” Dean said, looking around.
“Hard to wash,” Sam said. “Not very warm, either.”
“I’ve got you climbing all over me all the time,” Dean said. “Furnace-boy. We don’t need anything else keeping us warm.”
Sam glanced up at him. Dean met Sam’s slightly slanted, fox-like eyes, taking in the narrowness and the flash of warning. He looked away.
“You do look good on silk,” Sam said.
Dean was careful not to look at him. There was a challenge in Sam’s tone, something goading, something meant to incite.
When things happened between them by accident, it was fine. When it came about by design, Dean felt himself balk.
He felt Sam’s eyes on his back as he dropped the towels he held into one of the carts they’d been filling. Down comforters; Dean wasn’t about to live without those, ever again.
“We need pillows,” Dean said. “Like, twenty. ‘Cause you’re a goddamn pillow hog, you know that?”
“You gonna ignore me?”
“You gonna keep your mind on business, here?” Dean said, keeping his back turned.
Sam came closer and kicked the cart forward, slamming it into a mannequin.
Dean glanced at him. “What the hell is going on with you, Sam?”
“You wanna know what’s up?” Sam said, opening his arms wide and coming way too close. “Really, Dean? Fine. I’ll tell you. My problem is that I keep thinking about the silk sheets back at the Bellagio, and that I’d really like to fuck you on them. How about that?”
Dean’s eyes were huge.
“Is that what you wanted to hear?” Sam said.
Dean kept staring at him. He looked so shocked that it made Sam feel like he was going to snap.
“You keep letting me get away with stuff,” Sam said, dropping his voice. “You just go along but you don’t really start it, so I can’t tell how much you want and how much you just let me get away with.”
“What the – “
Sam turned away and started walking. There was no way to keep talking after that; he felt so damn stupid. It was never enough, nothing ever was, and by pushing all of it like usual, he was just going to freak Dean out or piss him off, or –
The grip on the back of his shirt meant business, held the kind of strength he remembered from being a kid, which was the last time anyone had been successful at just grabbing him and jerking him around. He stumbled back, barely keeping his balance, then not needing to when Dean put his back against a nearby set of shelving with less force than Sam had braced himself for.
“Kind of hard to finish a fucking sentence around you,” Dean growled. “Letting you, right? What else am I supposed to do?” His voice raised to a shout, and he shook Sam hard by his shirt, close to the throat. “This is up to you. I’m not gonna...I’m not supposed to. Goddamnit. I already told you I’m not good at this.” He dropped his hands but didn’t back away, eyes furious.
“Nobody asked you to keep protecting me,” Sam said. He wanted to hit Dean for being such an idiot. There wasn’t enough air in the whole damn place; it had drained out as if it’d been a pool and someone had finally pulled the plug.
“Nobody has to,” Dean said. “Jesus, you’re so...fuckin’ dense sometimes.”
Sam closed the distance, broad shoulders and intent, and grabbed the back of Dean’s neck, pulling him in hard, crushing their mouths together. Unable to resist.
Dean finally opened up beneath him, maybe unable to deny him, maybe waiting him out. Sam didn’t care which, so long as he let him in.
Sam tore away with words already working their way out of him, no thought attached. “Want you,” he said into the corner of Dean’s mouth. “Not ‘cause you’re all that’s left. Everything, just...”
“Sam,” Dean whispered.
“Inside,” Sam said. “C’mon, Dean.”
“You don’t – “
“Fuck me,” Sam said, biting into Dean’s collarbone as he said it, sealing the idea, searing it right into both of them.
Dean made a low choking noise. “Sam.”
“Please,” Sam whispered, cupping Dean’s face, running his thumbs along Dean’s jaw over and over. “Please. I want that, I want us.”
Dean looked so torn, so anguished that Sam almost had pity on him, almost decided to back off, but he couldn’t. “Want this with me,” he whispered.
“I don’t have –“
“I don’t care.”
Still trying to protect him.
It was Sam that stripped Dean, mostly because Dean didn’t move fast enough and Sam had enough momentum for the both of them. He heard Dean’s breathing quicken and knew he had him, knew all he had to do was push and Dean would do whatever the hell he wanted. If that was the only way, he’d take it. He whipped his own shirt off over his head, hands flat against Dean’s shoulders and chest as soon as they were free again, contact. Mouths sealed together, Dean trying to breathe patience into him and trembling with it.
Sam, finding hand lotion from a nearby display
(roses, how the fuck was it roses)
and shoving it into Dean’s hands in a rush. “Goddamnit, just...you know more about it than I do, I know you do, just – “
“Never done this before, either,” Dean said. “Doesn’t matter. Quit talking, Sam.”
Sam did. Didn’t resist when Dean pointed to the nearest demo bed and backed him to it with one hand low on his stomach; didn’t even startle when Dean’s fingers smoothed a soft, slick pattern around his entrance, warm and urgent without being rough, a thumb pressing in under his balls. Sam wanted to ask him how the hell he learned that, how he’d figured it out, but it was just more stalling and never wanting it to be over. Pressing in and up and still so careful but meaning business, and Sam didn’t have time to second guess or mull it over, it was happening already and in for a penny, in for a pound and he wanted it worse all the time. One last new thing, one last good secret for him to share with Dean without a world to hide it from. Dean with blunt, callused fingers curving gently, and Sam sliding down closer to get more of whatever the hell that was, body working on its own without asking for any kind of mental input except more and do that again. Dean twisted his fingers and the discomfort and vulnerability were part of the charm, part of the surrender of the whole thing, and Sam heard a whine escape his own throat. He was terrified that he was going to come before anything else even happened, since he was so damn keyed up and the adrenaline did nothing to help him hold back.
In the middle of the bedding department in Macy’s.
“Easy,” Dean said, voice soothing and enticing all at once, free hand moving in one gentle slide down one of Sam’s thighs, skin on skin, finally, and Sam bucked into it. Dean leaned forward and mouthed at a hipbone, tracing it with his tongue, breath warm, mouth sliding down to the inside of the thigh, adding a third finger as he did it, and Sam arched against the bed in desperation.
“Quit fuckin’ teasing me, or I’m gonna kill you,” Sam said, and for a moment even Dean knew he meant it.
Dean’s voice was a warning against the skin of his stomach, perilously close to his dick, enough so that he froze. “If I was teasing,” Dean said, “you’d be crying and begging me by now, Sam. Next time.” He thrust his fingers again, and Sam twisted beneath him. When they withdrew, Sam startled at the shock of it, at the loss of warmth. He kept his eyes closed, holding on to what it all felt like and trying not to break it. When the pressure returned, he knew the preliminary stuff was over.
It was uncomfortable, but not enough to graduate to pain. It amazed him that he could feel all of it, more than just a burning stretch; he dug his fingers into the sheets when he realized he could feel every inch, Dean more than just a presence above him of heated skin; Dean inside.
“Open your eyes,” Dean said, voice strained.
At first Sam wasn‘t sure he could. Then he wasn’t sure how he’d lived without the sight of Dean so far gone, pupils blown wide but still alert, muscles straining for something other than fighting for his life. Predator, captive, his.
I did this.
It seemed just right to link his ankles behind Dean’s thighs, and from the look on Dean’s face, he thought so, too.
“You gonna do this,” Sam said, trying not to let it become a gasping plea, “or you need a diagram?”
Dean’s hands were braced on either side of Sam’s chest, and he leaned in closer, pressing Sam’s dick close between their bellies. Sam felt pressure in so many places that it took an act of will he didn’t realize he had to keep his eyes from rolling up in his head.
“You keep talking shit, I’ll just roll you over and fuck you facedown like the bitch you are.”
Dean knew exactly what he was doing, choice of words and voice pitched low and filthy, sin with a smear of the divine along one edge, too good to pass up.
Sam reached down in reaction to it and caught the backs of Dean’s thighs in his hands, fingers digging in and pulling, desperate for the rest of it. Dean canted his hips up and in, and Sam felt the curve of him and the possibility of how good it could be with just that bit of –
Dean grabbed Sam’s hips in rough hands and breathed open mouthed along his collarbone as he began to thrust, long simple motions that Sam locked up under in shock. No way it could be this good the first time that way, no way Dean knew all his –
“Breathe,” Dean said, voice barely recognizable.
Sam dragged in a harsh breath on the next stroke and the oxygen made things even better, everything clearer and blade-sharp, heels digging in and causing Dean to swivel his hips involuntarily, point and counterpoint, no one in control. He had his hands around Dean’s wrists, half moons of fingernails leaving marks he couldn’t help, and then Dean’s fingers were prying him loose and twining in, dragging his hands up the bed and pinning him. Dean, lying along his body, sweat-slick skin on skin, head butting under his chin, ripple of muscle and power, hips flexing.
They weren’t going to last long like that, too new, too much, too close, and he didn’t care. Sparks of needle-sharp pleasure teased along his spine, behind his knees, at the insides of his elbows, promising something more. They were going to get to it, all of it, sooner or later, live long enough to make that enough. More than enough.
He tore his hands free and slid down, wrapping his legs around Dean’s waist and hunching himself until he was closer to face level, grabbing Dean’s head in both hands and crushing their mouths together. Dean got one hand into Sam’s hair and the other sliding between , grip slick but sure, and they were nothing after that but a collision of bruising roughness borne of need, Sam bucking upward as hard as he could and Dean grinding downward with everything he had left. Sam sank his teeth into Dean’s shoulder when he came, never meaning the pain but meaning the possessiveness. The growl of shock it wrung out of Dean was worth it, the convulsion of amazement, the feeling of Dean pulsing inside him.
Long minutes of winding down, of catching his breath, of Dean as warm weight on his chest. Of trying not to flip Dean under him.
“I knew you were a biter,” Dean said. “Called that one.”
“You want a prize?” Sam said.
“Got it,” Dean said.
Sam wanted to laugh, but settled for a sharp exhale.
When Dean moved to lift himself away, Sam knew it was because there was too much contact, too quickly, and lying there was too close to cuddling. He startled in shock when Dean withdrew.
“You okay?” Dean said.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “Jesus, yeah.” Before Dean could get any further away, he said, “Are we okay?”
Dean sat on the edge of the bed, turned slightly away. Sam could see the edges of the mark his teeth had made on his shoulder, and felt a mild zing of both guilt and arousal.
“I’m not supposed to want this,” Dean said. Before Sam could say anything, he added, “But I do. You, every good, bright, fucked-up minute of you, Sam. Okay? We’re as okay as we ever get. I don’t know what goddamn litmus test you’re using.”
Sam rolled onto his side, curled loosely, inches away from Dean’s bare back. He was going to feel all of it in so many ways for awhile, and that was good.
It took him a moment for the words to sink in. Dean hadn’t said we’re not supposed to; he’d said I’m not supposed to. But I do.
When he grabbed Dean and hauled him back and over his own body, engulfing him in a hug that was only half-serious, Dean squawked in outrage but didn’t protest otherwise.
Maybe Dean didn’t hate it that much when Sam tossed him around.
Sam would never smell roses again without getting hard.
They unloaded the truck in silence and left everything in the office while they boxed up everything in the house that had belonged to someone else. The pictures, the knick knacks, the clothes; bedding, bath, dishes, everything. It all went into the truck. It was after dark by the time they were done.
“Since when are you walking around without condoms?” Sam said.
Dean looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. He held his hands out and gestured around in a way that loosely encompassed the world. Then he went back to closing up the truck.. Sam was sitting on the edge of a cement birdbath near the driveway, watching him.
“You always acted like some goddamn cowboy, but I know you were careful,” Sam said.
“How about this weather,” Dean said.
“I mean, even if you did have something, it doesn’t really matter.”
Dean froze. “I’ll give you anything you want if you stop talking,” he said.
Sam clicked his tongue against his teeth. He dropped his voice into its lowest timbre and said, “Anything?”
Dean straightened, face tilted back and hands palms-up to the sky, another wordless plea for assistance from somewhere, anywhere.
“I mean, if you’ve managed to pick up something bad enough that antibiotics can’t get rid of it? I may as well get it, too.”
“That makes a lot of sense,” Dean snapped without turning. He rested his hands at his hips with a sigh.
“Sure it does,” Sam said. “This isn’t a race to the finish line, or anything, but I’m not letting you get too far ahead all the same.”
“Now we gotta talk about dying,” Dean said in an annoyed sing-song. “I’m older.”
“Four years doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Sam said.
“It means I get first crack at not being the last person on earth,” Dean said. “No way I’m hanging around to see what it’s like without you. Everybody could fuckin’ snap right back into place the moment after you die, Sam, and it wouldn’t make any difference. So shut up about this.”
Dean was losing his grip on his carefully constructed badass facade. Or he just didn’t care that much about saving face in front of Sam anymore. Either way, Sam was glad.
“So it’s okay to leave me here alone,” Sam said, keeping his tone carefully neutral.
Dean came at him with a look of purpose on his face, and Sam felt like standing so he could take the brunt of whatever it was from a better vantage, but he didn’t. Dean was still pretty damn unpredictable, when he was emotional.
Sam found himself liking the idea of that. And for once he didn’t try and explain it to himself.
Dean put a finger a millimeter or so from Sam’s nose and said, “Don’t put words in my mouth. And quit making some big thing out of something we got no control over anyway. Go back inside, if you’re gonna act like a goddamn girl.”
Sam folded his arms across his chest. “Next thing you point at my face had better be meant to go in my mouth,” he said with a smirk.
Dean snapped his hand down and blushed, his jaw muscles clenching visibly. “You – “
“Don’t act like you still have to watch out for me,” Sam said. “It’s just you and me, now, nothing chasing us, nobody to save. Not even us. Okay? We just gotta figure out what we want to do with the rest of our lives. Our lives. Quit trying to save me from some imaginary threat.”
Dean stepped closer, close enough to get between Sam’s knees, close enough to put his face an inch from Sam’s until Sam quit breathing and his eyes went out of focus. He recognized his own scent on Dean and that had more of an impact than his proximity.
“Don’t underestimate what I’ll do to keep you alive and safe,” Dean whispered. “Ever.”
He stepped away and walked back to the car.
Sam watched Dean’s back and wasn’t sure what was worse: Dean no longer having anything to level his aggression on, or Sam making sure he did.
When Sam blows him for the first time the next morning, it’s messy and awkward but Dean ends up chanting Sam’s name like a mantra just before he comes, and it’s not to warn him. Sam, Sammy, oh god Sam.
As much as he decides he really doesn’t enjoy much about sucking another guy off, even Dean, Sam realizes very quickly that he’s addicted to doing anything that causes Dean to completely lose his mind.
If they didn’t talk about any of it, just let it all happen, things were ten times easier. Even Sam recognized that. It was worth talking about, but putting any of it into words caused them to define it and assign designations. It was better to let it all stay emotion, for once.
Instead they talked about the common things they still needed.
They both built a small henhouse out by the garage and surrounded it with chicken wire, careful to sink the wire deep into the ground with stakes to put off the digging things and topping it with a length as well.
It took them two days to find chickens. They’d been dying of starvation or escaping or getting eaten by the dogs that were wandering freely. Coyotes, hawks.
There were still a batch hanging around in the yard of one farm a few miles down the road, picking around for bugs and scuffling with each other, a group of hens and a rooster. They hadn’t wandered far from the little ramshackle henhouse surrounded with chicken wire off to one side of a stucco home with a vegetable stand out front. Catching the chickens turned out to be one of the hardest things Dean could ever remember doing. Considering what he’d been catching and killing for most of his life, that really pissed him off.
Sam gathered the eggs that had already been laid, wondering how fresh they were but tucking them away all the same. There were two hens hiding from them in the house, and he grabbed them, managing to get them into a burlap bag with out losing one. There was a lot of griping and flapping around, but he didn’t pay any attention to it when he put them in the back of the car.
In the end, they managed to find some netting and get a total of six chickens without accidentally hurting any of them, or themselves. One rooster and five hens, all they’d probably need. There was enough chicken in the freezer to last them awhile, so they wouldn’t need to be eating them yet.
Cows were harder. They were still fenced in and eating grass, so Sam and Dean decided to leave them where they were. They would just have to go a couple of miles down the road and herd them in when they wanted milk.
They found a small farm just a little further down the road where the cows were still docile enough to be happy to see people and expect some kind of treat. There were several milk cows that came to the fence the minute they pulled up, then followed Sam under their roofed enclosure.
“So,” Dean said, “come down every morning and milk them.”
“I don’t know how,” Sam said.
Dean smirked. “I’ve seen your technique. I think you’ve got it figured out.”
“You’re an asshole,” Sam said with a growl, careful not to look at him. One of the cows, a brown and white splotched animal with a notch in one ear, nudged Sam’s elbow.
“We’ll call that one Stroganoff,” Dean said.
“You’re hilarious,” Sam said. “Go find a....I don’t know, pail or bucket or something.”
Dean wandered off, whistling. Sam patted the cows one by one and looked around to see if there was a bag of feed left or anything. There was a large shed close to the enclosure, so he walked over – followed by three expectant cows – and lifted the rusted metal latch on the door. There were a few bales of alfalfa in there, some tack, some tools. The horse that had been in their yard had probably come from there, too. He pulled off a six-inch chunk of alfalfa and tossed it out into the yard. The cows looked at it, swiveling large heads, then slowly moved for it.
Dean returned with a couple of tall, clear plastic buckets with tops that could be sealed in place. “These were in the house,” he said. “Pretty sure this is what they used.”
Sam took one and went over to one of the eating cows, one of the two black and white ones. It ignored him completely, even when he got down on his knees in the dust and had a look beneath.
Dean stood a few feet back and watched.
Sam ignored him and went back to trying to find the right grip.
“Awkward,” Dean said.
Sam leaned back on his haunches in impatience.
“You sure you remember enough about how to handle boobs, Sam?”
Sam twisted and gave him a withering look over his shoulder. “If this’s how you ‘handled boobs’, it’s no goddamn wonder there were never more than one night stands for you.”
“I can figure this out,” Sam said. “Without you standing there.”
Dean snorted and wandered away.
Sam looked at the cow again. It kept ignoring him.
“Sorry,” he said. “For all of it.”
He managed to get enough milk for cereal and coffee on his first try. It was whole and unpasteurized, but they decided to keep it cold and just let their bodies get used to it. Dean immediately insisted they go back to Macy’s and look for an espresso machine.
The rooster woke them at dawn.
Dean blinked at the ceiling and said, “I forgot about that part.”
Sam got up to go down the road and check on the cows. He told Dean to look for eggs.
There were none. The chickens were pretty upset from the day before. Sam had known they would be; he had just wanted to get Dean to feel around in the henhouse and reach under the chickens.
Dean learned to make bread from one of the recipe books in the pantry that day.
His first try was a mess because he wasn’t sure what it was supposed to feel like when it was right. Not enough flour, too much flour, not kneaded enough to get all the air bubbles out. Sam walked through and found him with his sleeves rolled up, flour-coated up to the elbows and down the front of his shirt. When he mentioned that Dean maybe needed to tap into his inner Susie Homemaker, Dean nailed him with a handful of flour.
Sam standing there with one side of his face and hair white with flour, looking like a ghetto mime with an expression of almost comical shock on his face was enough to send Dean into a long minute of hysterical laughter.
By the time they were done, the kitchen was a disaster, and they were both covered in flour. Sam made sure a decent amount got down Dean’s pants.
It took a few tries, but once he had it, it was the best bread they ever remembered eating in their lives. Fresh, homemade bread was a luxury they could have any time they wanted. There was still a lot of butter frozen in the freezers of a dozen houses nearby, so they wouldn’t have to learn how to make that until later.
They raided a store in Waterford for additional sundries and medical supplies, picking out dry and canned goods that they could keep in the cool of the garage. Flour and sugar, rice and other grains were sealed carefully into containers to keep creatures out and to keep it fresh longer. They refilled the chest freezer and the one above the fridge, planning on bringing in a second chest freezer to fill so that when the dam finally quit providing power, they would still have a pretty good store of meat before they’d have to start thinking about butchering a cow or any of the chickens.
“You’re gonna get attached, aren’t you,” Dean said. “We’re gonna have to go cow-hunting just to find a stray, unknown cow wandering around out there and shoot it to spare your three buddies down there.”
“Hey,” Sam said, “they’re tame and they like me. So we’re not eating them. We need to keep good milk cows. In the spring we’ll see if a bull shows up and makes a couple more so we can have our own friendly little herd.”
“Whatever,” Dean said. “You gonna let a bunch of the eggs hatch this spring, too, have more chickens?”
“We don’t need all the eggs they’ll be putting out once they settle in,” Sam said. “So, yeah. More chickens.”
“No more roosters,” Dean said. “We eat those little bastards first.”
It was the most boring Halloween they’d ever seen.
They were glad.
They watched the original Halloween and agreed it was still one of the best-filmed horror movies of all time.
Sam left the front door open when he went out the morning of the 3rd, to check on the cows like usual. Dean complained and demanded a chance to stay in bed, fuck the chickens, they could wait. It was colder out there than usual anyway.
He had nearly dropped off again when he heard a noise on the stairs, and then something ran across the carpet. He only had the chance to open his eyes in confusion before he heard a brrrrup!, and then something hit the bed.
He startled and sat partway up to find a big longhaired tabby walking up his body, kneading its paws into the comforter as it came, staring at him with wide green-gold eyes. The cat had come home.
“Oh, sonofabitch,” Dean said. “Seriously?” He flopped back down and turned over, pulling the covers over his head. The cat took that as some kind of invitation. It walked up and sat on his shoulder.
When Sam came back and went upstairs to holler at Dean to get his ass out of bed, he found the cat sprawled across Dean’s back and laughed.
“You’re not gonna think its so funny when it wants to park itself in here and watch us with its creepy eyes,” Dean said from under the covers.
Sam gently picked the cat up off the bed and put it in the hallway before closing the door and showing Dean exactly what his brother didn’t want the cat to see.
On the 11th, the horse came back and hung around, revealing himself to be a chestnut with white feet and nose. Sam named him Artax.
When he was around, Artax took to following Dean around the yard, stood nearby whenever he did anything to the car, ‘helped’ him check on the water filtration system. If he stood still long enough, the horse would curve his neck over Dean’s shoulder and rest his chin on Dean’s chest. Dean rolled his eyes, but Sam saw the quirk of his mouth and knew how much it tickled him.
Thanksgiving was turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, of their own making, in their own house.
Their own home.
There were no words for something like that.
They didn’t discuss it, but they both felt the same thing: it felt a little like they were holding a memorial for everyone and everything that had come before.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Sam said.
Dean squinted at him from across the table. “Religion doesn’t exist anymore.”
Sam shook his head. “If you could have anything you wanted, what would you want?”
Dean tilted his head a little and Sam knew what he was thinking, saw all the signs of a moment of carefully suppressed mushiness coming on. He leaned forward a little and hoped it wasn’t obvious. “Dean?”
“Already have everything,” Dean mumbled. He cleared his throat. “Uh, could use a couple more speakers for the stereo. So I can hear it outside while I’m mowing the lawn.”
Sam smiled a little. “Could finish replacing your tape collection with CD’s,” he said.
“Yeah. I mean, it’s not like we have to go shopping or anything. We could just go grab whatever we want, right?” He paused. “So, what would you want?”
Sam was still smiling when Dean looked up.
“Aw, Sam,” he said. “Don’t get all girly on me.”
“I’m not,” Sam said. “We could have a tree, and lights, and all that stuff, you know. We’ve got eggs and milk for eggnog, too. It would be fun if we did the traditional thing now that we’re all....traditional.”
Dean raised an eyebrow at him, but didn’t shoot the idea down. Things were different.
They drove east into the foothills and chose a small fir tree to cut down and tie to the top of the car. Sam chose lights and a tree stand and ornaments and tinsel from a store in Waterford. Christmas stuff had been out on the shelves since the end of August.
They set it up in the dining room in front of the windows and decorated it without Christmas music, because that was just taking it too far. When they were done, it looked pretty good.
The tinsel came back off the next morning when the cat ate some of it and then puked its way all through the house.
When Dean started finding wrapped presents under the tree, he eyed Sam suspiciously but didn’t say anything.
When Sam started noticing that the things he’d wrapped were not the only things there, he didn’t say anything either. But he grinned.
When the chickens awoke them during the night on the 17th, Dean got up and looked out the windows and cursed.
“Fuckin’ coyotes,” he said, tugging his jeans on. “Not gonna lose those chickens to the coyotes. No way I’m trying to catch more.”
Sam got up and headed for the stairs, gun in hand.
“Hey,” Dean said.
“I’ll take care of it,” Sam said.
“Sam – “
“My turn,” Sam said. He knew Dean didn’t realize he was talking about the coyote in the road when they’d been just kids, but it felt like something coming full circle and it was his turn to make Dean look the other way. He knew in his gut that Dean would have every intention of taking care of things, of protecting part of what made their current life so comfortable, but he would balk at shooting something that was just doing what it was made to do. Dean could shoot demons and humans and possessed humans and any size and shape of monster, and put things out of their misery. But this was none of the above and Sam knew instinctively that it would harm Dean to kill something only to benefit himself. Even if the chickens benefitted Sam, too.
Dean followed him but didn’t say anything else. Stayed in the house when Sam went quick-silent out the side door, movements covered by the commotion the chickens were making. Startled when Sam nailed the coyote with one shot.
Didn’t comment when Sam hung it from one of the trees at the edge of the property to warn others off.
There were other predators that had ruled the world before humans had come along. They would begin crowding back in as time passed, and their little oasis would need protecting from whatever came calling. The coyote was simply the first, and smallest.
Dean’s eyes told Sam he understood that loud and clear when Sam came back in the house.
Christmas Eve was eggnog spiked with way too much of something that Sam put in that Dean couldn’t identify right away. But it was also DVDs of a couple of Superbowls from the seventies that they’d never seen that Sam had found in a Target in Modesto.
Dean fell asleep with his head on Sam’s lap and Sam felt like maybe he shouldn’t be so damn happy, what with the world having ended and all.
Christmas morning, Dean ruffled Sam’s hair and told him to stay put; he was going to go take care of the animals. Sam didn’t question it, just huddled back into the covers.
After while, he got up and made breakfast.
By the time Dean got back about forty five minutes later with the milk, there was coffee and frozen orange juice, eggs and bacon and homemade toast.
“You gonna open your presents?” Sam said, sopping up some yolk with a corner of toast.
Dean shrugged. “You gonna open yours?”
“You first,” Sam said.
Sam coaxed him into sitting on the floor in front of the tree and opening things. True to his word, Sam had replaced Dean’s entire tape collection with CD’s, every one. He’d also thrown in a couple of things he thought Dean might like.
“Thanks, Sammy,” Dean said, blinking at him. “Awesome.”
“I didn’t wrap the extra speakers you asked for,” Sam said. “They’re upstairs under the bed. Don’t blow the windows out. Okay?”
Dean grinned. “We’ll see.”
“There’s one more,” Sam said, sliding a red-wrapped shirtbox toward Dean.
Dean tore it open carefully because Sam’s grin had become slightly mischievous and he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Then he knew exactly what to make of it.
“Silk pajamas,” Dean said flatly. They were green.
Sam leered at him. Leered. Dean tucked them back into the box and slid it back under the tree. “Pervert,” he said. But the look on Sam’s face told him that Sam had his number, damn him. He was going to put those on the first chance he got.
“You wouldn’t be happy any other way.”
Sam opened one box to discover that Dean had found and replaced all of his Carl Sagan books. He hadn’t read them in years and realized he couldn’t wait to read them again.
“Thanks,” he said. “This’s...thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Now you can quote more stuff at me and see if I remember it.”
The knitting books weren’t as funny as Dean probably thought they were, but Sam pointed out that a lot of soldiers and football players, very tough, badass guys, took up knitting for something to do. Dean smirked anyway.
“One more thing,” Dean said. “It’s out in the garage.”
Sam cocked his head back in curiosity. “Aw, my own car?”
“Like you would have missed that,” Dean said. “Go and look, wiseass.”
Sam got up and headed for the garage. He didn’t hear anything as he approached, and he was wracking his brain trying to figure out what would need to be kept outside as a surprise.
He opened the side door to the garage just an inch and didn’t hear or see anything different, so he opened it the rest of the way, conscious that Dean was right behind him. A swirl of dust hovered in the straight edge of morning light that streaked in across the garage floor. Then there was a click of claws on the cement and then something black and low to the floor came straight at him.
He almost slammed the door.
The black resolved itself into something with a very large head and equally huge paws, wagging its tail so hard that the entire back end was waving back and forth. It was a black lab puppy, no older than four months old. It came to Sam and laid its ears back, watching his face and pressing against his knees.
Sam could only stare. “Where...”
“Was running up and down the road when I was headed into Waterford a couple of days ago,” Dean said. “Remember, I got you to realize I could actually go somewhere, alone?”
Sam nodded. Huge, baleful brown eyes gazed up at him.
“Lost her family, I guess, or just got lost. Didn’t occur to me, at first, to grab her. But then I remembered....about the other puppy. You know. So I went looking again this morning, on the way to look at the cows, and there she was, the dumbass, running around with the cows.”
Sam nodded again. It was all he could do. Then he sat down on the ground and got a lapful of wiggling puppy, pulling her in until he could press his face to her fur.
He didn’t mean to cry. But Dean didn’t do more than ruffle his hair in response.
Dean was on the roof again messing with the solar panels, muttering about photovoltaics and concentrator modules and building a second array just in case. Sam held the bottom of the ladder and waited, knowing Dean was teaching himself everything he could in case any of it needed to be fixed later on, after a windstorm or if they just wore out.
He finally came down the ladder and stood in the yard with Sam, looking at the house and everything they’d done to it in so short a time. Bailey, having learned that the chickens were completely off limits and bad-tempered besides, romped around the outer rim of the yard, keeping an eye on them but also keeping her nose to the ground. Sam finally chose the name after Dean called the dog booger for a week.
Everything seemed just right. They were trying to get accustomed to just right. It was like culture shock.
“It’s gonna work,” Dean said. “It’s all gonna work, and be fine.”
“Yeah,” Sam said with a laugh. “It is. Pretty good, huh?”
Neither of them had any idea he was going to do it. Dean leaned in and kissed Sam. It was soft and quick, joy and affection and nothing else, but when Sam pulled away and looked at Dean in surprise, Dean’s eyes were closed and there was a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. It was the same blissed out look Sam had seen on him before, after a night with the right company or a day alone with one of those goddamn magic-finger vibrating beds and a roll of quarters.
Dean squinted his eyes open a fraction, just a slice of dark green visible, bottom lip caught between his teeth.
Sam waited to see what came next, because the next move was all Dean’s and they both knew it would set the standard for the rest of their lives.
Dean’s voice was low and made Sam shiver. “I need a look at you, Sam,” he said, leaning in.
Hard press of lips and teeth, bites along the edges of jaws, tongues licking in and tasting, breath deep and slow. They needed each other in every way possible, and this was just the final one.
Sam drew his tongue along Dean’s lower lip and sucked hard at a spot just above his collarbone. Dean groaned and tried to spin Sam, but Sam hooked a leg between Dean’s and planted himself in place. They grappled, snorting with laughter and the euphoria of the moment, trying to get purchase against each other. This, they knew too well; no move remained between them that wasn’t anticipated.
At least, not where the rules involved a contest of physical strength.
Not much after that but roughhousing in the yard and stretching everything that they were for the joy of it, with the dog barking around them in circles. It had been too long, after so much searching and hope that kept failing, so much mourning. All their sacrifices, all the struggling, for a world too empty to withstand.
Full again. Finally.
The contest made it into the house, a slamming of the door to keep the dog out and then a sliding of feet becoming an accidental tumble into the kitchen, growls of exertion that were partly aggression and partly arousal echoing off the walls. Sam managed to get them both upright only to slam Dean into the wall near the pantry, jostling the shelving inside and causing something unseen to tumble.
Flashes of white teeth; two flavors of hazel eyes glinting in challenge, boots toed off halfway up the stairs. Too many close calls that could have sent them tumbling back down. Sam made a stand in the doorway to the master bedroom, their room, not putting up the fight that he could have. Dean grappled him closer to the bed, and then Sam stood, chin tilted up, making a come on gesture with both hands.
Dean shoved him, hard.
Sam hit with a startled whoop of laughter and lay on his back staring up with a grin, disheveled and breathless and even more beautiful as a result. The laughter died out of him when Dean pulled his shirt over his head. When their eyes met again, Sam’s were half-lidded and wandering over Dean, and the brief, unconscious shift of his hips against the bed told them both everything they needed to know about whether it was okay. Dean deliberately slid his hands along his own hips and took his time removing everything south of there, and Sam’s frank regard was almost physical. When Dean spoke his name, his eyes startled back up to Dean’s. Dean couldn’t help the grin he could feel on his face when he kicked the rest of his clothing away. When Dean came closer and reached, Sam sat up and let Dean strip his shirt off. Then he lay back against the bed again. He was shaking; Dean could hear it in his breathing and feel it when he touched him again, and he took his time unfastening his jeans. It was more to tease him than anything else, and Dean didn’t even try and resist taking a moment to use the back of one hand to caress him lightly through the fabric. Sam’s eyes rolled closed, and he clenched his jaw and said Dean’s name between his teeth with audible impatience. But when Dean leaned down to press his mouth to the same spot and breathe a moment of damp warmth there, he heard the breath leave Sam in a moan.
When Dean lifted his head again, Sam’s eyes were closed, lips parted with amazement and need. His hands had moved to grip the bedclothes and he was panting when Dean tugged his jeans off. He pulled one knee up automatically, but when Dean crawled onto the bed and braced myself above him on all fours, Sam arched his throat and pulled the other knee up just enough to leave himself wide open. There was nothing on his face that said he knew what he was doing. He was simply giving himself by instinct, and Dean would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t shaking just as hard. They weren’t new to this, or each other, but this was not the same playing field. Everything they did from then on might not have been done had the world stayed full of other people, but it meant the same thing: a conscious choice. They had chosen each other over all others so many other times, and there was just the one thing left, and for once there was nothing frantic or needy. Sam’s eyes strayed between their bodies to the proximity they held to each other; then he closed them, and Dean watched his brows draw together.
There would be days somewhere in the future where they both had the control to take their time, but they were a long way from that point, and Dean dropped to his elbows and deliberately slid his hips against Sam’s. Sam took in a quick breath and gripped Dean’s biceps, and Dean reached down to adjust them both so that they were lined up the way he intended. He used his knees to keep from leaning his full weight on Sam but pressed him into the bed while he slid his right arm beneath sam’s shoulder and braced the other elbow at face height. When he glanced down at Sam again, to see how he was taking it, his eyes were open to Dean’s again. The combination of lust and love and trust in his face was something Dean couldn’t look away from when he began moving against him. Long, easy moments of nothing but skin on skin, breath mingling, the warm throbbing where their bodies met. Dean lowered his mouth to Sam’s, and that same kiss they’d started earlier continued, tongues thrusting against each other in quick, starving patterns. Dean had to touch him, had to adjust his weight on the one arm so he could trail fingers along Sam’s chest, his stomach, the small of his back when he changed angles slightly and began to rotate against him. The sound Sam made deep in his chest was muffled by the kiss but no less powerful to Dean, and he felt it like a blow.
Sam was suddenly moving with him, and Dean was losing his grip on his resolve to be careful. He slipped a little, thrusting hard against Sam, and Sam arched up hard enough against him to raise him up a little when he locked his thighs against Dean’s hips. Dean moved them both further along the bed when he thrust against Sam again, and the kiss broke. Dean heard him gasp, felt Sam straining against him while his body took another thrust, another, and his grip tightened on Dean’s arms. Dean felt Sam’s hips jerk, and his own name moaned out of Sam just as he felt Sam lock up beneath him. Dean barely had the presence of mind to lift his head to watch the changes that pleasure made in Sam’s face before he felt the warm wetness of his release paint them both. The slickness joined the sweat between them, made it easier yet to move, and Dean couldn’t stop staring at him, the look of devastation on his face, the unseeing amazement in his eyes as he shuddered. A sweet, breathless repeat of Dean’s name tightened the knot Dean could feel in his belly and lower back, and then reality was torn away for a long moment.
Dean was still moving against Sam when he came back from that endless pouring of pleasure, aching, lowering more of his weight onto Sam. Spread wide beneath him, Sam took it easily, and when Dean could be sure he wasn’t going to suffocate him he relaxed.
After a long, out-of-breath moment, Dean shifted his weight away a little without breaking contact and listened to Sam breathe. Sam was carding his fingers through Dean’s hair as if it was the most natural thing in the world, as if he’d been waiting for a chance to do it. They drifted there for awhile, and Dean used the time to trace patterns along Sam’s throat and chest with his fingertips, eliciting a shiver every so often. It was oddly blissful and something Dean had rarely shared with anyone else he’d been to bed with.
It was another facet of survival.
They caught up on all the TV they’d missed while basically trying to save the world. They hadn’t missed a hell of a lot.
- March, 2009
In the spring, they planted a basic veggie garden, learned to tend the nearby orchards. For the most part, they transplanted existing plants like tomatoes and potatoes and onions and carrots into the ready-made patch in the back yard. The bigger stuff like corn and melons were going to do their own thing in the existing fields around them, and they could wander around picking out the fruit and vegetables they needed for a couple of years before it all went wild enough that they’d have to start planting their own.
- April, 2009
Mosquitos became a problem as soon as warm weather hit. Their population exploded without humans to keep them down. They netted the back deck and checked all the window screens to make sure the little bastards couldn’t get in, then outfitted both doors with screens as well. The birdbath out front was removed, along with anything else in the area that made a good water-collection spot.
- May, 2009
They drove to Bobby’s for a couple of days to check on the house.
It had weathered the months since their last visit just fine. Nothing had changed.
There was no disturbance; no sign anyone had ever read Sam’s countrywide graffiti.
Instead of disappointment, it made them feel strangely relieved. No one needed them except themselves.
They no longer felt as disoriented. They remade places to be familiar, and looked to each other when they needed to focus on the recognizable.
Few roads survived the cold and heat and the encroachment of plant life. Sometimes they drove anyway, just to look at the world.
Over the years, the cities began to crumble.
But Sam and Dean didn’t.
Final tally: 6.6 billion, minus two.
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